Margaret Holcomb, an 81-year-old woman from Amherst, Mass., grew a single marijuana plant in her garden, tucked away behind the raspberries. She used it to ease the ailments of old age: glaucoma, arthritis and the occasional sleepless night.
She hadn’t tried to get a medical marijuana card, because of the challenges of getting a doctor’s approval, she told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. And traveling to the dispensary in the next town over and paying for marijuana grown by someone else would be too costly, she feared.
So on the afternoon of Sept. 21, a team of Massachusetts State Police and Massachusetts National Guard troops sent a helicopter, several vehicles, and a handful of troopers to Holcomb’s house to chop down the plant and haul it away in a pickup truck.
Holcomb wasn’t the only one targeted by the marijuana raid. State police spokesman David Procopio told the Gazette that authorities also seized 43 other plants from various properties that day. The largest of these seizures involved 20 plants. Several properties netted only two plants each. None of the property owners were charged with crimes, according to Procopio.
Procopio said these operations were done under the auspices of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Cannabis Eradication Program, which gives state authorities money to uproot pot plants. This year, the DEA gave Massachusetts $60,000 for marijuana eradication efforts, according to federal documents obtained and published by journalist Drew Atkins.
Last year, Massachusetts received $75,000 and destroyed 3,138 plants under the program, a cost to federal taxpayers of about $24 per plant.
Responding to criticism from a local government official in western Massachusetts, DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson told the Boston Herald that the state decides when and how to conduct raids for pot plants.
The Cannabis Eradication Program’s stated goal is to “halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the United States.” But with more and more states legalizing recreational marijuana use in recent years, some lawmakers are questioning whether an $18 million federal program to pull pot plants makes sense.
The program has also been the subject of controversy and ridicule. In the mid-2000s, DEA data revealed that most of the plants destroyed under the program were “ditchweed,” naturally growing marijuana plants that weren’t being cultivated for any particular use.
Last year in Utah, a member of an eradication team testified that a medical marijuana law could lead to an epidemic of stoned rabbits and other animals. The incident became fodder for late-night talk shows.
Even residents carrying licenses in medical marijuana states can fall prey to the program. In a Massachusetts raid last month, Procopio told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that 10 plants were seized from a couple’s back yard because they were not kept in an enclosed area protected by a lock, as the statute requires. The growers, Patti Scutari and Francesco Compagnone, dispute that, saying that their entire yard is surrounded by a fence with a locked gate. Under Massachusetts law patients may grow as many marijuana plants as necessary to meet their medical needs.
This summer, a task force consisting of National Guard troops and state troopers used a helicopter to aid in seizing four marijuana plants from 81-year-old former cancer patient Paul Jackson on Martha’s Vineyard, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Like Margaret Holcomb, Jackson didn’t have a medical marijuana license.
“I figured what I was growing was such a small amount, what the hell was the big deal?” Jackson told the newspaper.
In 2014, marijuana eradicators in Georgia raided a retiree’s garden after mistaking okra for marijuana.
Margaret Holcomb’s case is providing additional fodder for critics of strict anti-marijuana enforcement, particularly now since voters in Massachusetts will consider whether to legalize the plant for recreational use this fall.
“This raid, and similar raids in recent weeks, exposes the rank falsity of prohibitionist claims that law enforcement resources aren’t being used on marijuana enforcement,” said Jim Borghesani of the group Yes on 4, which is running the campaign to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. “It’s difficult to say what’s worse: the waste of taxpayer dollars or the violation of an elderly woman’s peace.”
Efforts to reach the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, the group opposing legalization, were unsuccessful.
Holcomb told the Gazette she is considering simply growing another pot plant. “I don’t picture them out here and putting an 81-year-old woman in jail,” she said.