WOONSOCKET – City police are weighing in on the debate over privacy and medical marijuana after making yet another arrest in a home invasion case that dates back months.
Joshua Gagne, 24, of 482 Park Ave., is the eighth individual charged in connection with the March 24 home invasion at 154 Park Ave., an address police now say housed an operation licensed to grow marijuana under the state’s medical marijuana law.
The individuals running the operation were not charged with any crime, but police say the law is flawed because it forbids state health officials from sharing the identities of licensed growers with law enforcement.
“They’re sitting targets and people know where they are, but there’s no data that the police can access to learn any of that information,” said Detective Jamie Paone, spokesman for the Woonsocket police.
Police have declined to reveal many details of exactly what happened during the home invasion, but police reports say the intruders wore masks and some carried firearms. Between $1,600 and $2,000 in cash was also stolen and police seized 149 marijuana plants, a figure that does not include an undetermined number of plants that were stolen by the intruders.
The victims of the home invasion were listed as Kara Valenti, 35, and Kenneth A. Laflamme, 34. Paone also said that Laflamme broke his arm when he jumped out a window to escape after one of the intruders threatened to shoot him.
Seven adults and a juvenile are now facing felony burglary, armed robbery and related charges in connection with the invasion. In addition to a 17-year-old male juvenile and Gagne, the others are Cyril Delgado, 19, Charles Welch, 23 Andrew Perry, 22, Kyeme Gallagher, 22, Randy Santana, 21, and Charles Perry, 20.
Police say several of the perpetrators were also responsible for a drug-related home invasion at 160 Cherry Farm Road, Burrillville, on March 6, in which they are facing similar charges. Lt. Lareto “Larry” Guglietta said the target in that case was not a medical marijuana facility, but the home of Frank Hopkins, a man long associated with running a summertime music festival on his rural property.
Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey said the Park Avenue home invasion marks at least the third time the police department has unwittingly run into licensed medical marijuana growing operations, but he suspects there are many others in the city. The state says there are over 3,500 caregivers who are licensed to grow marijuana for patients, but there are fewer than 40 cities and towns, he points out.
On two other occasions, the growers were charged with either cultivating more marijuana than permitted by their licenses, or they were in possession of other drugs that were illegal, such as cocaine.
Carey said he and other municipal chiefs think the state should allow police departments to have access to a database identifying legal grow houses. He said experience has shown that they are a magnet for crime even if the proprietors themselves are not violating any law.
“It has been discussed at meetings of the state police chiefs association,” said Carey. “You might think there would be some level of cooperation, but I don’t know if they’re afraid we’re just going to hover over grow houses all the time or something.”
Dara Chadwick, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, says the medical marijuana law passed by the legislature deems the identities of caregivers to be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA. That’s the same federal law that makes it illegal for hospitals to provide patient information to anyone but family members.
The medical marijuana law, also known as the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, says licensed caregivers can grow up to 12 marijuana plants for each properly registered patient. Caregivers are designated by patients.
“Applications and supporting information submitted by qualifying patients, including information regarding their primary caregivers and practitioners, are confidential and protected under the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996... not subject to disclosure except to authorized employees of the department as necessary to perform official duties of the department,’’ the law says.
Robert Capechi, the deputy director of state police at the Marijuana Policy Project, a non-profit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., argues that the privacy interests of caregivers outweigh law enforcement’s concerns about public safety when it comes to medical marijuana.
He says there is no demonstrable value in knowing who is growing medical marijuana to law enforcement because the information will never help them solve a crime before it happens.
Marijuana is no different than any other valuable merchandise that law-abiding individuals might stockpile in their homes, like jewelry or art, he says. But the police don’t keep databases on those people because it’s logistically pointless from an enforcement perspective. Even if the police knew where the goods were in advance, they wouldn’t have the resources to protect them around the clock.
Furthermore, says Capechi, 18 states and the District of Columbia have now licensed marijuana in recognition of the medical need for the drug. Growers are doing a deed of compassion for sick people, yet possession of any amount of marijuana remains a federal crime in every jurisdiction.
Those growers deserve protection from improper disclosures to prevent the federal government from disrupting activities the state deems to be lawful, Capechi says.
“I’m not saying a majority of law enforcement is going to do that but it only takes one bad apple and when that happens it’s going to have a chilling effect on caregivers and patients who are going to reject medical marijuana programs and their benefits,” he says. “The confidentiality of the grower and the patients trumps the interests of law enforcement.”
But Carey says knowing who the growers are ahead of time can help prevent wasting resource on figuring out whether the public’s tips about possible drug trafficking are valid or not.
“If you had that information you could identify a legitimate growing operation ahead of time, you’d know there’s no criminal activity there,’ he says.
Chadwick says there are 3,559 caregivers in the state and 5,575 medical marijuana patients. Recently, the first two storefront clinics where retail medical marijuana is available have opened in Portsmouth and Providence, places known as “compassion centers.”