In September 2012, Washington County drug investigators raided the Human Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in a Tigard strip mall. Police at the time said they searched 16 properties tied to the establishment, seized thousands of dollars and hundreds of marijuana plants.
Sarah Bennett and Don Morse, operators of the dispensary and well-known advocates in the state’s medical marijuana community, were accused of selling marijuana and charged with multiple drug felonies.
The case against Bennett and Morse ended recently in plea agreements and probation – a relatively low-key conclusion to the headline-grabbing investigation into Washington County’s last medical marijuana dispensary.
The prosecution of the Human Collective highlighted the ways cities and counties handled medical marijuana dispensaries, which proliferated for years without state oversight. Washington County cracked down on the establishments, shuttering three, including the Human Collective. In Portland, meanwhile, the establishments flourished, barely raising an eyebrow among law enforcement.
Last year, the Oregon Legislature passed a law creating a registry of dispensaries, bringing legitimacy and oversight to an industry that for years had gone unchecked. But even with the new law, geography-based divisions remain. Portland has allowed the establishments to operate, but they continue to face stiff opposition elsewhere in the state, including in Washington County.
Morse, 54, and Bennett, 38, this month pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana – Bennett pleaded guilty to two counts and Morse to one. Bennett and her fiancée, David Nicholson, 39, who have two young sons, were also accused of child endangerment and neglect, but those charges were dropped in exchange for their guilty pleas.
Nicholson, initially charged with drug felonies in connection to the case, ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of marijuana possession. (Another grower associated with the Human Collective also pleaded guilty to marijuana possession; the case against a fifth defendant is pending.)
Each was sentenced to one year of probation. If they follow the terms of their probation, their convictions will be reduced from felony to misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Nothing prohibits them from participating in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. In fact, Morse and Bennett now operate the Human Collective II, a dispensary in Southwest Portland.
“It is being resolved with what many would say is a slap on the wrist and you have to say why?” said Morse. “It’s because they had, in our opinion, no bonafide case.”
Morse said the case spurred him to become politically active and push for the state’s dispensary law.
Although she wanted to fight the charges, Bennett said she ultimately decided to accept a plea deal that didn’t include the child endangerment and neglect charges. She said she didn’t want to risk a trial that could result in a conviction for child endangerment or neglect, fearing that would prevent her from volunteering at her sons’ schools.
Nicholson, whose garden supply business was swept up in the investigation and ultimately closed, said his store wasn’t linked to the medical marijuana program. Now he works as an independent consultant to marijuana growers and patients.
“I’m very much in the marijuana scene now where I wasn’t (before),” he said. “It’s ironic.”
At the time of the investigation, the Human Collective was engaged in illegal activity, said Bracken McKey, a senior deputy district attorney in Washington County. He said the case made clear that the sale of marijuana wouldn’t be “tolerated in Washington County.”
“We feel like we accomplished that,” he said. “We shut down a major drug dealing operation.”
McKey added that the child neglect and endangerment accusations against Bennett and Nicholson led to the involvement and oversight of state child welfare workers to ensure the couple’s children were safe. Police found psilocybin mushrooms at the Portland home Nicholson and Bennett share, prompting the neglect accusations.
Bennett said she was unaware that the psychedelic drug was in her home. She said she complied with all demands of child welfare officials and that the child welfare element of her case is closed.
“Given the political reality of where we are, this is a fair resolution,” said McKey. “On a personal level, I disagree with the storefront sale of marijuana, but my job is to enforce the law as it currently stands.”
Leland Berger, a Portland lawyer who represents Nicholson, said the Washington County case illustrates the dramatic cultural and political shift underway when it comes to marijuana.
“I think it says good things about the Washington County District Attorney’s Office that they are willing to recognize the historical nature of the times,” said Berger.
At least two other prosecutions that began before the dispensary law continue.
In Ontario, four operators of the 45th Parallel, a medical marijuana outlet, were tried this spring and were found guilty of multiple drug felonies and racketeering charges.
Prosecutors say the establishment was highly profitable and exploited medical marijuana patients. The four defendants face sentencing next week in Malheur County Circuit Court.
Lori and Lee Duckworth, both associated with a Medford dispensary raided in 2013, are set for trial in July.
At the new Human Collective location on Southwest Barbur Boulevard, Buddhist sayings hang on the walls, just like they did at the old location. Morse and Bennett dispense marijuana in plastic sapphire blue pill bottles, just like they used to.
But the new establishment has something the old one lacked: a state-issued license to operate, which is framed and sits prominently on the reception counter.
The state’s approval means a lot to Bennett and Morse. Said Morse: “You sleep better.”
– Noelle Crombie