Many illegal marijuana growers from last two years not charged with crime in King, Snohomish counties

Plant count a factor in deciding whether to prosecute unlicensed marijuana growers

Every year, police and fire departments across the region undercover illegal marijuana growing operations that cause large fires and contribute to the black market. But, it can be years before the alleged criminals are charged with a crime, if at all.

In nine uncovered marijuana grows from the last two years investigated by the Reporter, charges have only been filed in two cases. Though law enforcement uncovered thousands of plants, processed marijuana, processing equipment guns, money and other evidence, King and Snohomish County officials said that many cases are still under review and some are not moving forward because they do not meet the prosecutor’s standards for prosecution.

Three Eastside cases from 2016 — two from Bellevue, one from Kirkland — are sitting on the King County prosecutor’s desk.

On March 21, 2016, the Bellevue Fire Department responded to a fire in the 14200 block of SE 38th St. The location is less than 500 feet from two day care facilities, a violation of state law that generally leads to harsher penalties.

Inside, fire and police crews found a marijuana growing operation with approximately 775 marijuana plants. They also located a baggie containing 44.2 grams of processed marijuana.

Under the state law passed in 2012, persons over 21 years of age may possess one ounce (roughly 28 grams) of usable marijuana. The possession of marijuana plants is only allowed for those with a valid processing license. The suspect — who is not being identified because he has not been charged with a crime at press time — was found to have an expired medical marijuana license to purchase marijuana, but no valid processing license.

One month later, the Bellevue Police Department investigated two growing operations in the 1500 block of SE 43rd Place and the 1000 block of 158th Place SE. The operation of nearly 1,700 plants was allegedly being tended over by a 53-year-old man on behalf of a third party.

In September 2016, Kirkland police officers arrested a man who allegedly had 370 marijuana plants in a house in the 13500 block of 93rd Ave. NE, as well as a $5,000 marijuana processing machine.

Unlicensed marijuana grows such as these can pump millions of dollars into the black market.

In October 2015, a multi-agency law enforcement raid uncovered a large-scale growing operation in Renton and Skyway. The marijuana grows, which were worth an estimated $2 million, were housed in several residences.

During their two-month investigation, officers conducted “a ton” of surveillance, could detect the odor of marijuana coming from inside the homes and found evidence the suspect had illegally tapped into the home’s power lines to run their growing equipment. Inside the homes, law enforcement found more than 3,000 marijuana plants, more than 150 pounds of processed marijuana and sophisticated growing and processing equipment, according to the Reporter’s sister publication in Renton.

Charges were not filed until Feb. 8, 2017. A decision on whether or not the suspects in the Eastside cases will be charged for violating the controlled substances act is expected to be made in the coming weeks.

The suspects in non-violent offenses like drug crimes are not being held in jail, so prosecutors can take more time deciding on charges, according to Dan Donohoe, spokesperson for the King County prosecutor’s office. If they have not been charged with a crime, the suspects are not required to remain in Washington.

The number of plants uncovered plays a large part in whether charges are filed, with some prosecutors having a threshold that must be met before charges are filed, according to law enforcement.

No charges have been filed in a 2015 Edmonds case in which law enforcement uncovered 368 plants after neighbors complained. A member of the South Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force told the Reporter it was because the case did not meet the plant threshold.

“I can tell you that the plant count doesn’t meet their guidelines, but we’re waiting for an actual decline notice for them,” Sergeant Jeff Mason said.

In another case, Lynnwood resident Thurston Meyers was arrested twice in nine months for repeat illegal marijuana grows. He was first arrested and charged in early 2015 for growing more than 400 marijuana plants and five pounds of processed marijuana. The suspect was arrested a second time in July 2015 with more than 250 plants.

Meyers received a first plea deal in the first case that led to him not being charged for his second violation. Under the agreement, he was not fined or served any jail time, instead agreeing not to apply for a marijuana license, to grow marijuana, possess any controlled substances without a prescription and not have any new law violations.

According to Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Kirk Mahjoubian, there must be at least 100 mature plants with attached roots tended by a single grower for the prosecutor to consider charges.

In King County, Donohoe said while growing any number of marijuana plants without a license is illegal, they decide whether to prosecute on a case-by-case basis. He also disputed the suggestion that prosecuting illegal growing operations is not a high priority for head prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

“I really can’t speculate with regards to a specific number of plants. We take it on a case-by-case basis. But, growing is illegal. We do distinguish, certainly, personal use versus someone who is participating in the black market and selling on a large-scale basis. Those are factors that we take into consideration,” he said.