When Adam* got home one evening in the fall of last year, it looked as if his house had been ransacked. All the doors had been broken down, his bed was destroyed and his drawers were tossed around the room. His housemates told him what had happened. In the early evening, the police, wearing ski masks, had banged on the back door and charged in.
Adam said there were at least six police officers and a few search dogs. “It was like out of a movie, where they bang on your door and come in screaming with their guns out,” he said. He had entered the aftermath of a drug bust.
According to Adam, the police found a few ounces of marijuana and some paraphernalia in the rooms of the six people who lived there. His housemate Tim said the police also found scales for weighing the marijuana. “They searched the entire house, like everything down to looking inside (our) refrigerator and inside cans of coffee. They looked inside the walls,” Adam said. “They did thousands of dollars worth of damage.”
Then the police left. Adam and his housemates hadn’t been arrested or charged with anything.
On April 13, nearly half a year later, the Livingston and Washtenaw Narcotics Enforcement Team and the Ann Arbor Police Department went public with their success in the arrest of a ring of drug dealers, including 22 University students, one alum and one person living with a group of students. LAWNET is a multi-jurisdictional taskforce made up of officers from the state police force, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and police departments from within Washtenaw and Livingston counties. LAWNET Lt. Garth Burnside described the investigation as a cooperative effort between state and city authorities.
During a six-month investigation process, the police searched 13 off-campus houses, the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and Bursley Residence Hall. They confiscated more than 34 pounds of marijuana, five guns and smaller amounts of prescription medications, hallucinogenic mushrooms and cocaine. They shut down four growing operations of what they classified as highly potent marijuana. Charges were issued for marijuana possession, intent to deliver, cultivation and maintaining a drug house. Headlines ran across The Ann Arbor News: “Major Marijuana Raids in Ann Arbor. All 24 suspects’ names were in the paper.
There is no question that LAWNET and the Ann Arbor Police Department managed to seize a significant volume of marijuana in this investigation, and the discovery of growing operations and firearms also indicates the suspension of a serious and potentially violent drug operation. But the number of names released by the authorities was misleading – many of the students were involved in a much smaller capacity. Without specifying the degree of involvement from each suspect, the authorities marked the reputations of these individuals and gained more publicity for themselves.
Adam started smoking marijuana in high school. By last year, he and his friends were smoking every day and sometimes more than once a day. But he said he never considered himself a drug dealer. He said at most he was giving his friends small amounts of marijuana if they wanted it.
The police report said the authorities had searched through the trash on the curb outside of his house and found plastic bags with a couple of grams of marijuana, according to Adam and his housemate. From these findings they obtained a warrant and searched the house. Adam was charged with possession with intent to deliver and maintaining a drug house.
Burnside described a drug house as a place where people meet to abuse substances. He said an individual can be charged with this “if you have a house in which you allow people to come over and use drugs.”
But Adam denied this charge, saying his house wasn’t quite a central location for obtaining pot. “This was basically just your typical college kids sitting around smoking pot,” he said.
After a couple of court dates, the charges against Adam were dropped, and he is currently serving a six-month probation sentence. Provided that he completes his probation, the charges will not remain on his record. But with his name printed both in The Ann Arbor News and his hometown newspaper, Adam received more publicity than he wanted. He worries about future employers finding the articles on the Internet and assuming that he was involved in a drug ring with firearms and highly potent marijuana cultivation.
“I’ve never even seen a gun in my life. They talked about people growing pot – none of us were growing pot,” he said, referring to himself and his housemates. “That’s a totally different ballgame.”
Adam’s housemate Tim described the situation similarly. Tim was working at the time of the drug bust, but he came home to find that the police had handcuffed his housemates and told them to sit in the corners of the room, facing the walls. Though Tim had dealt marijuana in the past, he said he was not actively dealing at the time of the drug bust.
In April, Tim was arrested with the rest of his housemates. He spent the night in jail and missed two exams and one final paper. Only one of his professors allowed him to make up the work. He too was charged with possession with intent to deliver and maintaining a drug house.
At Tim’s first court date he was told that if he cooperated with the police his charges would be reduced. Police wanted him to help to find a drug dealer involved in a larger operation.
Tim told the police that any higher-up drug dealers would have already heard about his investigation and would find it suspicious if he tried to buy additional drugs from them.
“They had released all of our names to the paper,” he said. “They wanted the publicity, and they ruined their chances of getting anyone higher up,”
Tim had an idea of who had told the authorities about his own drug use, because one of his friends had been busted in July and had been acting strangely since.
After the bust in April, Tim approached his friend at a bar and confirmed his suspicion. His friend ratted out about half the people busted in this investigation, according to accounts from three of the suspects.
Adam said he and his housemates knew that Tim’s friend had been raided, but they didn’t think he would tell the authorities about them. “We didn’t think we were doing anything that would warrant the police coming in and spending all of these resources on college kids smoking pot,” he said.
Tim’s sentence was also dropped down to probation as a result of the Holmes Youthful Training Act, which provides that individuals between the ages of 17 and 20 can be given orders of rehabilitation in the place of a criminal conviction. The charges brought against Tim will not appear on his record unless he repeats the offense.
Rob arrived home one morning to discover a similar sight in his off-campus home. It was the middle of February, and Rob and his housemate had been out all night. When they arrived at home in the morning, they found a search warrant on their table.
“All of our glass (was) smashed up all over the kitchen floor, and I had a safe that they did a number on,” he said. “They threw my trash all over the place.”
The authorities found a couple of ounces in his room, but there wasn’t a scale or any money, Rob said. “This was possession,” he said. “This wasn’t some sort of operation or anything.”
About two months later, the police showed up again. This time Rob was in bed. At 6 a.m. the police raided his home and after finding another piece of paraphernalia, they arrested Rob. He was charged with possession with intent to deliver and operating and maintaining a drug house. He was held in jail overnight.
Rob’s arrest followed a sting operation involving a friend who had turned into a police informant. The day of the original raid in February, Rob’s friend came to the house, purchased marijuana with marked bills and then went back to the police with the information As a result, Rob was charged with intent to deliver despite the absence of scales and drug money.
AAPD Lt. John Seto said the charge of intent to deliver is based on any evidence of dealing marijuana, independent of amount found. He said indications of dealing could be the way in which the drugs are packaged or the presence of drug money.
Because of a late change of attorney Rob is still waiting for his new court date. He plans to take the case to court because he said he thinks the informant’s history with drug abuse makes him an unreliable source.
Allegations of a drug ring
In defense of the investigation, outgoing Ann Arbor Police Chief Daniel Oates said the police department could not ignore narcotics activity with such potency and of such great volume. “We did not target (University) students, but by the same token when we have a cadre of students selling significant weed in our town, we’re going to go after them,” he said.
While both Adam and Tim claimed to not know any of the suspects other than their housemates, Rob said he knew most of the 24 people sitting in the holding cell that day in April.
This is little consolation for the suspects who said being grouped in a “drug ring” was one of the more distressing parts of the whole ordeal.
“Drug ring implies organized criminal activity, and it also implies that people are working together,” he said. “It’s not a huge ring. A ring implies that there is some kind of organized leadership structure, and then that sounds like it’s the mob or something. It’s not.”
Burnside, the LAWNET lieutenant, said it is difficult to determine how drug dealers are connected to one another. “We didn’t find a house with an organizational chart on the wall, telling us how they were intertwined.” But he said that the police did find connections.. He would not specify what the connections were.
Adam insisted the police shouldn’t have grouped together the 24 suspects in one announcement without making clear the degree to which each person was involved.
“They didn’t clarify at all how many pounds they found in each house,” he said. “They’re lumping together these people that are just really small-time or not dealing pot at all – they’re putting them into this big thing so that they can make it sound like they’ve done a big bust.”
Burnside said he and Chief Oates only released overall amounts and the total numbers of charges, leaving out the specifics of the situation, because they did not want to impede on the job of the prosecutors. Burnside said it was not relevant information for the public.
Allegations of potency
On April 14, Oates told The Ann Arbor News, “This is about the distribution of dangerous levels of a highly toxic level of marijuana. This is why we concentrated law enforcement efforts on this.”
But just as they question the use of the phrase “drug ring,” the suspects involved question the police’s investigation of especially potent marijuana. The suspects said there was no difference between the marijuana confiscated in this investigation and the marijuana that they had seen in Ann Arbor in the past. Adam said the marijuana available in Ann Arbor tends to be of a high potency.
“The potency was very high, and that was very disturbing,” Oates said.
“Their idea that they were protecting the public from a particularly dangerous form of marijuana is absolutely ridiculous. It’s good pot,” he said. “People have been smoking that since I was a freshman. I remember the pot that we had in our house wasn’t nearly as good as some of the pot that we’ve had before.”
Bruce Mirken is a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest U.S. organization concerned with marijuana policy reform. He said highly potent marijuana has no additional health risks, as tetrahydrocannabino, the active ingredient in marijuana is nontoxic. “You cannot (overdose) on smoking marijuana, but there is evidence that people smoking more potent marijuana smoke less,” he said. “Being able to get more of the effect that the user desires by smoking less decreases their health risk,” he added, referring to the risk of bronchitis affiliated with the inhalation of smoke.
With regards to the high potency in this case, Burnside said it was a result of the indoor growing of the marijuana. “It’s a recipe A– it’s learning how to grow plants and doing it the right way to get the potency,” he said. Burnside added that in the 1970s, the concentration of THC made up about two percent of most of the marijuana found. Burnside said the average THC levels in today’s marijuana range from 15 to 25 percent.
A history of use
Ann Arbor is a unique city because of its history of lax marijuana policy. In April 1974, the city passed a charter that prohibited possession of marijuana, with a penalty of up to $5 for offenders. Much like a parking ticket, this civil infraction disappeared as soon as the ticket was paid, and no trace of the offense remained on a criminal record.
In the city election in April 1990, Proposal B, which recommended a change to the proposal from 1974, was passed. Under this new legislation, marijuana use was considered a civil infraction with a fine of $25 for the first offense, $50 for the second and no less than $100 for the third and subsequent offenses. This proposal also included a clause that waived the penalty if the suspect agreed to attend a substance-abuse class.
When the legislation passed, the governor’s office and the office of the attorney general issued statements disapproving the proposal.Both offices stated that the proposal was contrary to the policy of the state, where marijuana was not effectively decriminalized. This response was a clear indication of the divide in ideology between the state and city governments. The city did not repeal the approved proposal, despite the criticism from the state government.
A similar situation occurred this past year, when last November the City of Ann Arbor passed Proposal C, legislation that legalized medicinal marijuana within the city. Seventy-four percent of voters came out in favor of the proposal. The legislation seemed to clash with the state policy, which prohibits the use, sale or distribution of marijuana. But this time, Oates sided with the state.
In a statement issued two days after the election, Oates said the AAPD would continue to arrest marijuana users and dealers – even those who use the drug to treat a medical condition – in spite of Proposal C.
LSA senior Josh Soper is the director of the University’s chapters of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, two organizations that advocate for changes in drug policy. He said the investigation of the 22 University students last April was another example of the authorities ignoring the views of Ann Arbor residents toward marijuana. “It’s pretty clear that our community doesn’t think of marijuana offenses as prosecutable,” he said.
Soper said some of this progressive attitude is a result of the student activism regarding marijuana policy on campus in the 1970s.
But Lt. Seto said marijuana use is a problem in the city, and the police decide whether to follow state law or city law based on circumstance. “Police officers don’t decide what the laws are. We enforce them,” he said.
Michigan law states that marijuana use is a misdemeanor with a fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. Possession is also a misdemeanor with a $2,000 fine and up to one year in jail. Distribution without compensation holds the same penalties as possession. The felony charges consist of cultivation and sale, and the fines for these two offenses are $20,000 and up to four years in jail. According to Burnside, maintaining a drug house nets a $25,000 fine with up to two years in jail.
Has this investigation accomplished all that the authorities hoped it would? With a significant amount of marijuana confiscated and the announced elimination of a “cadre of students,” it is not unreasonable to hope the investigation has helped to combat marijuana abuse. But Burnside said there haven’t been any changes in the numbers of drug offenses in the city. He also said the prices for marijuana have stayed consistent, implying that the supply has not decreased significantly. “There’s still a drug problem. I don’t think we’ve taken the head off the monster of this group,” he said.
Mirken said this case is a microcosm for the bigger picture of drug law enforcement in the nation. He said arrests do little to combat the historically high levels of marijuana use, citing the 35 million marijuana plants confiscated in the past year in the United States and the remaining availability of the drug.
“Marijuana is an easy plant to grow,” Mirken said. “You take out one dealer and another takes his place because there’s so much money to be made.”
The suspects all agreed and added that none of their friends have stopped smoking as a result of this investigation.
Mirken also said college towns are particularly difficult areas for marijuana law enforcement. “You have a somewhat transient population and an age group amongst whom the use of marijuana is the heaviest,” he said. “If cops are intent on chasing marijuana users they have a lot of targets but consistently moving targets.”
Tim agreed, saying this year’s freshmen aren’t even aware of last April’s investigation. “They come in with this notion of Ann Arbor, and they don’t worry about it. It’s a losing battle,” he said.
The University does not seem to put much effort into encouraging students to abstain from marijuana use. The UM Alcohol and other Drug Prevention Program at University Health Services has a website dedicated to providing students with resources on the effects of these substances. The pages on alcohol and tobacco contain a variety of information on the risks, along with information on counseling services designed specifically for substance abuse. The marijuana page only contains seven short statements on the effects of marijuana on users. Under the laws, policies and enforcement section of the website, there is no mention at all of laws regarding marijuana use.
“We don’t have any formal educational efforts about marijuana. We do have materials and certainly help students out if they ask us for information. Alcohol is by far the most extensively used drug by students, and the drug that we see the most harm to students who use and other students who don’t use,” said Patrice Flax, the coordinator for the program.
While Flax’s point is a good one, it seems strange that a University in a city with a reputation of vast marijuana use does not have someone providing materials on the drug.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy are one active voice on the subject. Along with the annual Hash Bash, the organization also aims to raise awareness of attacks on civil liberties in the enforcement of drug laws. They hold showings of the film “Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters,” which outlines a suspect’s rights in a number of different cases involving drug law. The showings are often followed by a question-and-answer period with a lawyer.
Soper highlighted the importance of knowing your own rights. “The idea behind the event is that in a huge number of cases where people are arrested for a drug crime, they waive their Fourth Amendment rights,” he said, referring to the guarantee of security against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The news of the investigation dissipated in a few days. Court dates were attended, sentences given. Though some suspects still await their trials, the damage has mostly been done.
All three suspects expressed their resentment toward the press coveragebrought about by the police. Tim said he worries about future employers finding articles about the investigation on the internet.
“It was clearly just a publicity stunt, to say that they arrested 22 (students) and to claim that it was this giant ring,” he said. The police are “acting like they’re saving Ann Arbor from the evils of the world.”
Note: The suspects would only speak on the condition of anonymity. In some cases, this was the result of an upcoming trial; in others it was necessary to preserve the reputations of those involved.