A Pierce County medical marijuana market that authorities contend was operating outside the law was raided Sunday, had its manager arrested and had $250,000 in pot seized.
A video of a Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy made by an employee during the raid has sparked controversy on the internet.
The enforcement operation was conducted by the Sheriff’s Department with the assistance of the state Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.
The market, located in the 10600 block of Pacific Avenue, had been operating illegally since July 1, 2016, which was the deadline for folding Washington’s medical marijuana market into the state’s tightly regulated retail cannabis system.
“We just refused to close down and never received a cease and desist,” said Jay McNeal, who has worked security and other jobs at the exchange since it opened in early 2015, and recorded the video that has gained attention on the internet.
The weekends-only market was open only to people who could prove they were Washington residents and held medical marijuana prescriptions, McNeal said.
It drew 25 vendors and hundreds of customers every weekend.
McNeal was outside the building Sunday when he saw law enforcement vehicles drive onto the property.
Officers were armed with a search warrant that cited the presence of marijuana, extracted THC, CBD and other cannabinoids and products. It also stated that equipment, cash and proceeds could be seized.
Numerous complaints about the market had been made to the Sheriff’s Department, spokesman Ed Troyer said Thursday. Most of those came from legal marijuana dealers who must pay the 37 percent state excise tax.
When he realized the site was being raided Sunday, McNeal said he took action.
“I ran in the back door and told everyone to follow the protocol,” McNeal said. The “protocol,” he explained, was for vendors to walk out from behind their tables and mingle with customers.
McNeal went back outside and a co-worker closed and locked the door behind him.
One of the deputies involved in the operation on Sunday objected to video shot of him by McNeal and briefly detained him outside the building.
McNeal was first told by the deputy to stand near a wall while the deputy spoke with another man. At some point, McNeal began to film the scene using his phone.
In the video, the deputy can be seen outside speaking with the other man who McNeal identified as “Hebrew.” They were standing next to a wall on the grounds of the market. Hebrew is handcuffed.
After turning his phone toward an LCB officer, McNeal turns it back toward the deputy. The deputy is seen walking toward McNeal and then putting his hand over McNeal’s phone.
“What?” McNeal says. “I’m allowed to do that.” The video goes black but the sound is clear.
“Here’s the deal,” the deputy is heard saying. “You’re going to go in handcuffs. Is that want you want to do?”
McNeal protests again.
“Just put your phone away,” the deputy says. “Can you do that? Or you’re going to have a big problem.”
“What’s wrong with you?” the deputy says.
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” McNeal responds.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back,” the deputy says.
McNeal claims the deputy tried to destroy his phone.
“He tried breaking my phone, just crunching it in my hands,” McNeal said.
McNeal said he was put in the back of a police cruiser for 20 minutes.
In that time, the parking lot was inundated with arriving customers. McNeal said the deputy released him under the provision that he agreed to direct traffic.
McNeal posted the video to Facebook, sparking outrage. As of Thursday it had 34,000 views and 665 shares.
“We understand it’s people’s right to film us,” Troyer said Thursday. “And we also understand that people are concerned by seeing that video. We get that.”
However, Troyer said, this was an instance where a detained suspect was doing the filming within a police perimeter while a search warrant was being served.
“We’ve got to have some sort of control over the situation while we’re serving the search warrant,” Troyer said. “And (McNeal is) part of the operation. This is not a guy standing on a street corner, part of the public, filming.”
Troyer acknowledged the incident is in a gray area and that the department’s legal team and others are looking into it. He also noted that the 74 people inside the building were not handcuffed and only one person, the man who organizes the market, was arrested.
That man is Roel Cruz. Troyer said Cruz charged vendors $450 to $750 to sell their products at the market.
“While the defendant maintained he only collected enough from the vendors to pay rent and utilities, law enforcement estimates he was collecting between $300,000 to $500,000 per year from the vendors,” according to court documents filed Thursday.
Cruz was scheduled to be arraigned on a charge of leading organized crime, but Superior Court Commissioner Meagan Foley instead ordered him held without bail pending the outcome of an evaluation to determine whether he is mentally competent to stand trial, court records show.
Liquor and Cannabis Control Board spokesman Brian Smith said six to seven LCB officers assisted the Sheriff’s Department. They helped with evidence gathering but did not seize any products or make any arrests.
Smith and Troyer said 200 pounds of plants were confiscated with a value of $250,000.
“This does not include the edibles and oils that were also confiscated,” Smith said.