Medical marijuana dispensaries in northern Michigan are no strangers to law enforcement raids. But despite the raids, dispensaries keep opening up. And law enforcement ends up spending time and resources that don’t seem to achieve the intended result.
Al Witt worked at Gaylord Provisions in Gaylord until last May. Then the medical marijuana dispensary was raided.
"Those officers all came into the store in tactical gear, jackets, camo pants, guns, knives," Witt says. "Way more excessive for a friendly environment that they’re going into. They took all my stuff, took my money, took my phone, and then just started interrogating me, and making us try to feel like we’re cartel members when that’s not even close to what’s happening here. It was very terrifying."
After the raid, Gaylord Provisions shut down and Witt was hit with multiple drug charges. He pled not guilty. He’ll face a jury trial in January.
Now, just half a year after the raid he called traumatic, Witt is standing in his new medical marijuana dispensary on Otsego Avenue in Gaylord.
The dispensary is called Cloud 45, and they sell high-grade medical marijuana.
Witt and his co-owner, Chad Morrow, are fully aware that it might only be a matter of time before this shop is also raided.
"Honestly, I kind of expect it," Morrow says. "I’m prepared for it. And if it happens, it’ll happen. It’ll be on the news and you can come here tomorrow and interview at the same spot because I’ll be open the next day."
Witt and Morrow think they’re operating legally. Law enforcement disagrees. Either way, the owners of Cloud 45 are willing to risk raids for their cause, which they say is helping people get the medicine they need.
After the raids in May, Witt and Morrow asked the City of Gaylord to consider a zoning ordinance. They think it will help protect marijuana dispensaries from future raids.
But Jesse Williams, a defense attorney for medical marijuana clients in northern Michigan says, "Not in Gaylord. I think those people have false hopes."
Williams says it’s the county prosecutor who signs off on the raids. And he feels confident that Otsego County’s prosecuting attorney will keep authorizing raids and prosecuting dispensary owners and employees regardless of a zoning ordinance.
"There is zero protection for those folks," says Williams. "The state can and will prosecute them, and I would encourage them to stop doing that because they are living in a hostile zone in that regard."
The prosecuting attorney did not want to comment for this story.
Even though Williams recommends that dispensaries stay closed, he’s also adamant that the raids are just over the top.
"Law enforcement needs to stop wasting our tax dollars and resources on dispensaries," he says. "There are serious issues and serious problems going on, particularly with opiate overdoses, heroin overdose and other things.”
Williams says he defended a medical marijuana dispensary owner who sold 23 grams and a lollipop with possible traces of THC, and the case took years to conclude.
"About 29 months of resources were wasted to prosecute a case that ultimately resulted in the Attorney General’s Office making a recommendation that jail ... was not necessary," Williams says. "So, what are we doing? What are we accomplishing?"
Detective Lieutenant Ken Mills, unit commander of Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement (SANE) team says it's simple.
"Well we enforce violations of the law, and that’s what we do," says Mills. "If people are going to break the law we’re going to enforce those laws."
SANE carried out the raids in Gaylord, and Mills says the raids happened in one day, and didn’t take much investigation.
Mills perception of the raids is different than medical marijuana providers like Witt who say they were traumatized.
"Nobody’s really happy to see the police in most cases," Mills says. "And I guess I felt the ones that I was on - and I was on a few of those that we did that day - and all of them were done pretty low key, pretty quietly and peacefully."
Al Witt at Cloud 45 says police raids and possible felony charges won’t deter him, "Because it’s all beatable in court. And we’re curing people and helping people not killing people. You can’t stop that. It’s the right thing to do."
Attorney Jesse Williams says he hopes Witt is right for his own sake, but he’s not optimistic. He says it’s become increasingly difficult to beat these cases in court.