One of the last, and highest-profile, targets of a series of federal raids on medical marijuana businesses around Montana went on trial in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Monday.
Jason Washington, a former University of Montana Grizzlies quarterback, is charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking crime – offenses that can carry a 40-year prison penalty and a $5 million fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Elliott told jurors in her opening statement Monday that the evidence would show Washington “was trying to get marijuana from all over the state and trying to distribute it.”
Much of that evidence would come from 9,000 communications over 53 days of wiretapped calls and text messages on Washington’s phone, she said.
Washington’s businesses – a marijuana grow operation at the Wye, the Big Sky Health medical cannabis dispensary on Reserve Street, and his 406 Motoring automotive shop – were raided in November 2011.
They followed raids at medical marijuana operations around the state in March 2011. Montana’s once-booming medical marijuana industry essentially collapsed after those raids.
During the raids at Washington’s businesses, agents seized 80 pounds of marijuana from the grow operation and the dispensary, and more than 1,000 marijuana plants at the grow operation, as well as $92,600 in cash in a safe deposit box belonging to Washington, Elliott said.
Six other people along with Washington originally faced the same charges in connection with the raids. The conspiracy and possession charges each carry a mandatory minimum penalty of up to five years in prison, and a maximum of 40 years, as well as a $5 million fine.
Five of the six pleaded guilty to conspiracy to maintain a drug-involved premises; the longest prison sentence handed down was 125 days. The indictment against the sixth person was thrown out.
In his opening statements Monday, Washington’s defense attorney, Kwame J. Manley of Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., pointed to those sentences as raising reasonable doubt in Washington’s case. Those other defendants, he suggested, got “get-out-of-jail-free cards” for testifying against Washington.
Still others whose names would come up in connection with the case weren’t indicted at all, he said. “You’re going to ask yourself why,” he told the jurors.
Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Washington complied with state law in setting up his medical marijuana businesses, he said.
“He obtained a license by Montana to participate in its medical marijuana operation, and he was fingerprinted by the FBI” – an agency that’s part of the same federal Justice Department now prosecuting Washington, he said.
“The evidence will show there is reasonable doubt at every corner,” he said.
The trial continues Tuesday in federal court.
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, firstname.lastname@example.org or @CopsAndCourts.