Are These America’s Meanest Marijuana Cops?

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

To the north of metro Detroit across 8 Mile Road is Oakland County, Michigan, a heavily populated and relatively well-to-do suburban area—with one of the highest arrest rates for marijuana crimes in the state. Here, Michigan’s “murky” medical marijuana law is subject to a hard-line interpretation: It may as well not exist. 

Inspired by Michigan’s attorney general, who has gone on record asserting that medical cannabis is nothing more than a ploy to conceal cartel-level drug trafficking, prosecutors in Oakland county have been happy to pursue maximum criminal penalties against registered marijuana patients for having a handful of cannabis plants not kept properly stored.

That’s earned the local prosecutor’s office a statewide reputation, “widely known for its aggressive prosecutions of medical-marijuana cases,” according to the Detroit Free Press. This zeal has also made it well-known at the state Supreme Court. Four out of the nine marijuana cases to reach the high court on appeal originated in Oakland County, according to the Metro Times.

But for a case to be presented for charges, it needs to originate with police—and Oakland County, one of the toughest places on pot in the medical marijuana state of Michigan, may have one of the meanest packs of pot-hating cops in the United States.

At prosecutors’ command is a law-enforcement outfit called OAKNET, described by the Free Press as “the county’s much-feared Narcotics Enforcement Team.” OAKNET is infamous for deploying military-grade tactics and a “take-no-prisoners” attitude towards anyone who may be skirting Michigan’s medical marijuana law, the newspaper reported—and OAKNET hates to lose.

OAKNET has been after Donny Barnes for almost three years. Barnes, 41, is a medical marijuana patient who uses cannabis to soothe neck and shoulder pain stemming from a snowboarding injury more than 20 years ago.

In 2014, Barnes was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute after masked cops from OAKNET swooped on his home, his office and his business’s warehouse, seizing more than 100 pounds of marijuana.

Cops seized his family cars, tools, bank accounts and computers from his businesses—one of which was running a monthly publication called the Burn, which ran ads from local medical marijuana dispensaries; the other, running a marijuana dispensary called the Metro Detroit Compassion Club. That would explain all the weed, which undercover OAKNET agents purchased at the compassion club several times before staging their big raid.

The raid was timed around the holidays, so police also seized Barnes’s kids’ Christmas presents, he told the Free Press. But Barnes wasn’t even arrested until 14 months after the raid—not until after he’d filed a civil lawsuit in order to get his property back. That triggered his arrest and prosecution on criminal charges—almost as if it were payback.

Normally, that would be it.

Most defendants who end up on OAKNET’s bad side tend to be—wait for it—economically disadvantaged. Lacking resources to fight back in court, they tend to accept plea bargains, which means jail time, fines and the loss of property seized during raids under drug-related asset forfeiture laws. This is bad for the entire state, as other jurisdictions take cues from Oakland County, the paper reported.

Barnes, however, is lucky to have family resources. The raid ended Barnes’s small business and began a two-year court odyssey. Earlier this month, Barnes scored a “rare victory” against OAKNET, when a judge dismissed a key criminal charge against him and also ruled that police had failed to establish probable cause before raiding Barnes’ home and businesses.

“What this judge said was that you can’t just kick down doors and seize people’s property without having good reason to do so,” attorney David Moffitt told the Free Press.

Neither this nor the spectacle of another patient, confined to a wheelchair during his sentencing thanks to intractable back pain, has convinced OAKNET to rethink its mission or change tactics. Taking a page out of Donald Trump’s book on blame deflection, cops have dug in—and maintain that they can do all of those things.

Insisting they have evidence that Barnes is a big-time marijuana dealer who provided product to anyone, Oakland County sheriff’s spokesman blamed Barnes’s acquittal on a “lenient judge” and said drug investigators’ tactics, described by the Free Press as “merciless,” would not change.

Michigan medical marijuana patients can register to be caregivers but are limited to supplying no more than five other patients with cannabis. They also aren’t strictly able to purchase cannabis in dispensaries. There may be as many as 100 dispensaries in Detroit, but north of 8 Mile in Oakland County, local prosecutors abide by Attorney General Bill Schuette’s dictum that dispensaries won’t be legal until 2018 at the earliest.

By then, Barnes’s case is scheduled to be heard on appeal. Michigan may also ease up its marijuana laws to include dispensaries and to give police and prosecutors clearer direction on who to target for raids.

In the meantime, OAKNET does have something better to do.

Heroin use rates are up in the county “dramatically,” according to the local sheriff. And, as the Free Press once reported, heroin and prescription pills like Vicodin are easier to obtain, according to one citizen, than medical marijuana.

That might not be the case if the county’s badass cops didn’t spend their time buying weed in stores before returning in masks and camouflage to toss the store. But why go after heroin when there’s a weed store running newspaper ads you can “investigate”?

This is the question you don’t ask. Not if you want to be America’s toughest weed cop.

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