Nov 162010

Six people, including three Fresno residents, have been charged in federal court for allegedly growing marijuana in unincorporated Fresno County under the guise of the state’s medicinal-use law and distributing it in three other states.

The criminal operation grew thousands of pounds of marijuana at Central and Valentine avenues southwest of Fresno, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said Monday at a news conference in U.S. District Court.

The indictment comes as county officials struggle to handle what they call a tremendous increase in marijuana cultivation, with perhaps hundreds of thousands of plants grown. Mims said the increase is due to illegal sales — not legal medicinal use, Brad Branan reports in the Fresno Bee.

“They figured out how to scam the system and how to make a profit off of medical marijuana,” she said. County and federal authorities continue to investigate such operations, she added.

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While Fresno County residents have been charged for growing too much marijuana under the state’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, this is the first federal prosecution of a distribution operation working under the guise of the state act, Mims said.

Carolyn Delaney, a federal prosecutor in Sacramento, said the case is the only one she knows of in the Eastern District of California in which defendants have been prosecuted for openly growing marijuana under the state law and distributing it across state lines. The Eastern District covers Central California from Bakersfield to the northern state line.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last year that the federal government would back away from prosecuting under the state’s medical-marijuana law.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Cullers said Monday that the federal government will actively prosecute people who use the state law as cover for illegal activity.

The Fresno County case was the result of checking neighbor complaints about the marijuana grows, Mims said. Sheriff’s deputies saw a sign on the suspects’ property stating the marijuana was grown under the Compassionate Use Act, and listing the names of people with doctor approval for such use.

Some of the people turned out to have criminal records, Mims said. Federal authorities agreed to join the investigation.

Federal and county law-enforcement officials tracked the sale of the marijuana to Massachusetts, Tennessee and Utah, Mims added.

Searches executed during the case turned up 3,500 pounds of cultivated marijuana, 4,600 live marijuana plants, 11 guns and $115,000 in cash.

The marijuana was transported to eastern states because it sells there for three times as much as in California — $3,000 a pound, Cullers said.

Charged in the case were Bounepheng Savongsy, 50; Phousangkhy Phanthadeth, 37; and Manop Souksavath, 37, all of Fresno. Residents of New Bedford, Roslindale and Holbrook, Mass., also were charged. With the exception of Savongsy, who hasn’t been apprehended, the defendants are being held in federal custody.

The defendants face sentences of 10 years to life if convicted of the drug charges.

Two of the suspects wore military fatigues while delivering the marijuana across the country because, by their own admission, they thought it would help them to avoid law-enforcement scrutiny, Mims said.

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