Editorial: Police pick wrong drug fight with raid on pot-growing grandmother

  • Margaret Holcomb and her son Tim Holcomb stand where Margaret's marijuana plant was seized from her backyard in Amherst. gazette staff/andrew j. whitaker

Published: 10/4/2016 6:16:42 PM

Members of the airborne Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program may soon have to hang up their spurs. If Question 4 on the November ballot passes, they’ll have no need to fly low over people’s homes in military-style helicopters, as they do this time of year, looking for the illegal cultivation of marijuana.

And if this referendum question to legalize recreational use of pot passes by a slight margin, the program’s recent raid on an 81-year-old Amherst grandmother’s home may have helped tip the scales.

Ridiculous. Wasteful. Intrusive. Misguided. That is the sense of over 100 posts on the Gazette’s Facebook page in response to the Sept. 21 aerial surveillance of Margaret Holcomb’s backyard — and all that followed.

Holcomb’s son, Tim, went outside that afternoon to find a helicopter clattering overhead, with two men huddled in an open door holding a device that may identify marijuana plants. Minutes later, state police were at the door seeking access to the yard. They ripped out the one plant Margaret Holcomb cultivated this year to help her sleep and to ease her arthritis and glaucoma.

Those medicinal uses are sanctioned by the state, but Holcomb has not been certified as a user of medical pot. Even if she were registered with the state, it isn’t lawful to grow marijuana outdoors in an unsecured area that can be seen by the public. The police visit to the Holcombs was just one stop in a busy string of seizures that included 21 other plants in Amherst, 20 in Hadley and two in Northampton. A bit to the north in Wendell, the same outfit raided a couple’s medical marijuana patch. That family is allowed to grow marijuana legally because two members hold state licenses to do so. But it appears the 10 plants they were growing exceeded the legal limit and were, officials said, overly accessible to the public.

One family member asked, in an interview with The Recorder: “They (police) know we have licenses, so why didn’t they see it and let us know ‘We think you’re violating the law,’ and let us know, instead of flying over, then just showing up with five men?”

Why? Well, when you’re flying around with a hammer, as the saying goes, everything can look like a nail. And yet, all things considered, the police and National Guard response was measured. No one was arrested or charged in the raids, provided that property owners allowed police access and didn’t demand to see a warrant.

That process is nonetheless alarming, since it asks people to trade fundamental rights for relief from criminal consequences.  

A letter-writer on this page, a Northampton doctor, wrote recently that he’s concerned about full legalization, but plans to support Question 4 because he believes it is a bigger problem that people found to possess more than an ounce of marijuana in this state can still be charged with crimes.

While leaders of the National Guard Counter Drug Team may feel they run an efficient eradication and suppression program, that’s hardly the view held by most. Comments on Gazettenet lambasted the police and National Guard for wasting taxpayer dollars; funding for the flights comes from the federal government. People said police ought to be going after the distribution of heroin. Some expressed resentment over the aerial surveillance, seeing that as noisy and intrusive. Others said the backers of Question 4 couldn’t have asked for better publicity.

Indeed, the heavy-handed, military-style program seems a relic of another time, and of a bigger problem. While we would understand efforts to seize the harvests of significant illicit marijuana growing operations, it makes no sense to devote public resources to snooping around in Mrs. Holcomb’s backyard.

Now, she’ll have to find another way to tend to her aches and pains, at a higher cost. The official score Sept. 21 was State Police, 1; Mrs. Holcomb, 0.

But she is the clear winner in comments from a public disgusted by a needless show of force. The verdict: Just say no to helicopter surveillance and raids. The Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program picked on the wrong granny.




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