I-Team: Legal medical marijuana cards used for illegal drug ops

Row after row of pot plants fill every room of a home in Little Compton.

It was set up, police said, by two men from Massachusetts.

"Just about every single room in the house had some type of marijuana growing in it or drying," said Lt. Antone Marion in September 2013.

One of the suspects had a Rhode Island medical marijuana caregiver card, allowing him to legally grow pot for a sick friend or relative.

But the hundreds of plants found in two homes here in September went way beyond what the law allows.

And police said one of the suspects sold pot to an undercover officer multiple times, allegedly looking not for medicine, but for a profit.

"I think what's happening is there are plenty of people out there who are circumventing the medical marijuana laws for personal gain," said Capt. Kevin O'Brien of the Rhode Island State Police.

On March 4, Rhode Island State Police troopers made a massive bust that included 19 pounds of packaged marijuana and about 100 mature plants.

The sophisticated growing operation was hidden inside two suburban homes in Hopkinton. Inside both grow houses, troopers found medical marijuana patient cards.

But again, the massive amount of marijuana far exceeded the legal limit.

O'Brien said it's a pattern police all over the state are seeing, with state police logging at least 10 busts involving medical marijuana cards in the past 18 months.

"The amount that they're growing, in certain instances, far exceeds the demand for medical marijuana patients. So where is all that extra marijuana going?" O'Brien said.

The high level of secrecy surrounding the program is another problem.

Currently, the only state agency that can check whether someone has a valid marijuana card is the Health Department. Police said when they knock on the door of suspected grow house, there's no way to know for sure if the person inside is a legitimate patient or a drug dealer.

"We don't know who the good guys and the bad guys are," O'Brien said.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, a former police officer, is backing a bill he says would close loopholes in the law.

"We need to really make the system better," Kilmartin said.

Kilmartin also wants to close a loophole that allows patients and caregivers to apply for cards without a national background check, meaning out-of-state convictions won't show up as a red flag.

"We just want to keep those with drug convictions away from the program for obvious reasons," he said.

Joanne Leppanen, who leads the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a group that supports medical marijuana patients, said it's very frustrating for her that there are drug dealers abusing the program.

"This program is a successful program. It has literally maintained the lives of people who otherwise would not be with us today," Leppanen said.

She said while the recent busts are disturbing, they represent a small fraction of people in the medical marijuana program.

There are about 7,600 patients and 3, 500 caregivers statewide.

But only five have ever had their cards revoked. Most patients, she said, are following the law.

"The medical marijuana program creates a safe harbor for people who are licensed and live within the limits of the program. If they step out of that safe harbor, they are no longer protected. They are subject to the same laws that everybody else is," Leppanen said.

Leppanen said she has no problem with more thorough background checks, and she would support a system to let state police know where legal marijuana grows are located.

"As long as we don't hurt their access to medicine, then I think that we are very receptive to changes that would make this program better," she said.

Backers hope to pass the bill this year which is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.