The owner and two employees of Bellingham-based medical marijuana collective Northern Cross Collective Garden are facing 14 felony charges relating to delivery of marijuana.
The Nov. 12 court date will be two months after the federal government announced it would back off Washington state’s I-502 laws, which allow for the possession and use of a limited amount of recreational marijuana.
That isn’t stopping the federal government from going after medical marijuana collectives, and the city of Bellingham is following suit.
The Bellingham police raided Northern Cross on March 15, 2012, arresting owner Martin Nickerson. The garden was carrying more than the legal limit of marijuana and providing for too many patients, according to court documents.
The raid followed an undercover investigation by Bellingham Police officers, who obtained doctors’ authorizations and entered Northern Cross, taking note of violations of the medical marijuana provision.
The county prosecutor, who is handling Northern Cross’ case, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Nickerson’s lawyer Aaron Pelley sees things a different way.
“We believe we are following the spirit of the law,” Pelley said. “It will be up to a jury to decide if Northern Cross was coloring inside the lines or not.”
The dispute stems from the Washington state law that requires collective gardens to serve no more than 10 patients at any one time and grow no more than 15 marijuana plants per patient, up to 45 plants, to serve these patients.
This argument was used by the city to try to revoke Nickerson’s business license, according to a report by the Bellingham hearing examiner.
The Hearing Examiner said the number of patients and amount of marijuana at Northern Cross in 2011 was “clearly in excess of the number of patients and amounts of marijuana permitted in the collective garden provisions,” according to hearing examiner documents.
Nickerson and Northern Cross acknowledge that Northern Cross has exceeded these limits. Northern Cross has served almost 10,000 patients since its opening in 2011, Nickerson said, but the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit that.
“The law does not specify how many collective gardens you can have at one address,” Nickerson said, saying the Northern Cross does not operate as a single garden, but a series of gardens to treat the number of patients they have.
Northern Cross is working within the confines of the law to treat as many patients as they can, Pelley said. The way they see it, people are only patients of Northern Cross while they are on Northern Cross property, Pelley said.
Nickerson is disappointed with how the city is targeting medical marijuana businesses instead of “pursuing issues that really matter,” citing prostitution rings on Samish Way that Nickerson said police aren’t doing enough about as an example.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars on another level,” Nickerson said.
Northern Cross is also facing an intellectual property suit from High Times magazine, after Northern Cross put on a “Cannabis Cup” competition. High Times claims “Cannabis Cup” is their intellectual property.
Their medical history
Martin Nickerson started Northern Cross Collective Garden in April 2011 to provide safe access to medical marijuana, he said.
Northern Cross serves mostly elderly people on Social Security who could not afford to pay for medicine stores licensed under I-502 because of taxes, Nickerson said.
Under I-502, there will be a 25 percent tax on the marijuana grower, a 25 percent tax on the marijuana processor and a final 25 percent tax on the retailer for every sale of marijuana. The final cost, Nickerson said, could add hundreds of dollars per ounce to buyers, and patients at his garden cannot afford those prices.
Recreational marijuana under I-502 will cost about $12 per gram, not including taxes, whereas medical marijuana can cost anywhere from $10-15 per gram, according to estimates by the Office of Financial Management.
The Northern Cross is receptive to the financial needs of the patient and does not technically sell marijuana, Nickerson said.
The store operates under a “suggested-donation” policy, which Nickerson said they stick to. Some patients have donated nothing and still obtained medication.
“There are plenty of patients who are very poor,” Nickerson said. “They leave the shop with meds no matter how much money they have.”
Manager of Northern Cross Chris Ramsey is also facing the same felony charges for delivery of medical marijuana. If convicted, Nickerson, Ramsey and another employee Poppy Sidhu, could face 25 years in prison.
Ramsey uses medical marijuana for the developmental disorder Spina Bifida, a condition that causes vertebrae to not fully develop. For Ramsey, this causes weakening of the legs, muscle spasms and chronic back pain.
Ramsey can only walk using leg braces.
“I’ve had numerous spine surgeries, lost feeling in my legs, had toes amputated,” Ramsey said. “My surgeon put me on [medical marijuana] to take me off all the other stuff they had me on.”
The doctors prescribed him hydromorphone, but that caused hallucinations, so they knocked him down to Percocet, Ramsey said. Ramsey was also on muscle relaxers to stop the spasms and Xanax to treat the stress of his condition.
Ramsey was able to replace all his pain medications with medical marijuana, he said.
“It’s the only thing that keeps me from shaking all day long,” Ramsey said.