FERNDALE — Two employees of Clinical Relief wondered why a new patient presented them with a medical marijuana card in July that had her photo on it.
“They mentioned they never saw a picture on a card prior to that. I said I didn’t know. That’s how my card came,” testified Candance Rushton, an undercover officer who posed as a patient with a fake medical marijuana card made by another member of the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team.
The NET investigation led to the arrest of 16 people from Oakland and Macomb counties on Aug. 25, including nine owners and employees of the medical marijuana dispensary on Hilton Road, for conspiracy and manufacturing and delivering controlled substances.
Because of the number of defendants in Ferndale, their preliminary examination had to be moved from 43rd District Court to a meeting room at the Kulick Community Center. Judge Joseph Longo sat at a folding table as did nine attorneys with their clients in a row of chairs behind them. They will return Friday to resume the hearing set to determine if there is probable cause the defendants committed the crimes.
The outcome of the hearing will determine if the defendants from Lake Orion, Troy, Royal Oak, Chesterfield Township, Livonia, Roseville and Leonard stand trial in what is seen as a test case of the 2008 law allowing the use of medical marijuana.
Defense attorneys said there was no way for their clients to verify the validity of the undercover officer’s medical marijuana card because it is considered to be a private medical record.
“The card represents — what it suggests — is that you are a certified, registered, qualifying patient diagnosed by a physician,” said Neil Rockind, who represents Ryan Richmond of Royal Oak, a co-owner of the dispensary.
Lawyers for the defendants spent a lot of time questioning Rushton about the phony card made on a computer by the officer in charge of the investigation.
“For delivery of marijuana, specific intent is important,” said defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter. “Its relevant to show that these cards look valid and the sheriff went through a great deal of time and effort to make them look real.”
The defense attorneys contend their clients broke no laws and ran a good operation. They kept the front door locked, made copies of patients’ cards and driver’s licenses, questioned patients about their work and daily routines, recommended what strains would be best for day and night use, and stored their products in a locked room.
Rushton told the Clinical Relief staff she had been in a car accident and suffered from neck and headache pain, according to her testimony. She said she paid $83 and left Clinical Relief with medical marijuana called AK47 and Gold Rush, a sucker with hash oil, and an offer for a free gram of medical marijuana if she referred a patient who bought an eighth of an ounce.
Rushton testified that she returned with another undercover officer who posed as a patient and bought medical marijuana. She got her free gram.
Rushton, who is assigned from the Troy Police Department, was the main witness Wednesday at the court hearing that drew three busloads of protestors and criticism from elected officials in three cities.
“When any law enforcement organization thinks it’s OK to take protected records, HIPAA protected documents, on an unprecedented scale in Ferndale history, then we have to take a stand,” said Rick Thompson, editor of a medical marijuana magazine based in Oak Park.
Thompson spoke to medical marijuana advocates from as far away as Ann Arbor, Lansing and Port Huron who carried signs saying, “Bouchard did you get the news? … Medical marijuana is MI law” and “Patients are not criminals.”
Elected officials from Ferndale, Royal Oak and Hazel Park criticized the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office raids that led to prosecution of owners and employees of the Clinical Relief medical marijuana dispensary.
In a statement released Wednesday, Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey, Royal Oak Commissioner Jim Rasor and Hazel Park Councilman Andy LeCureaux characterized the raids as excessive and expensive.
“This is way over the top and unnecessary,” Covey said. “If the sheriff simply wants to send a political message to Lansing, he could do it without such extreme tactics. He is wasting taxpayer dollars on an issue voters have said leave alone.”
The defendants include Anthony Agro, 42, of Troy; Barbara Agro, 69, of Lake Orion; Nicholas Agro, 38, of Lake Orion; Mathew Curtis, 39, of Lake Orion; Stacey Ellenbrook, 41, of Chesterfield Township; Ryan Fleissner, 30, of Livonia; Ryan Richmond, 33, of Royal Oak; Agelina Veseli, 24, of Roseville; and Barbara Johnson, 40, of Leonard.
Their preliminary examinations continue Friday with testimony from Derek Myers, the officer in charge. Myers was scheduled to take the stand Wednesday, but he was too tired from working the night before on a case, said Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Beth Hand.
“He was shot at and he had to return fire,” said Hand, adding that Myers didn’t get any sleep and he was concerned about his ability to focus on the hearing.
Hand said she also has one other witness to call on Friday.