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Backyard pot farm exceeds New Mexico limits for medical use

De Baca County News of Fort Sumner, New Mexico

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SANTA ROSA-A new criminal case in Santa Rosa will test the limits of New Mexico's medical marijuana laws, after a 68-year-old resident with valid medical cannabis cards has been charged with a felony for allegedly possessing many times the allowable amounts in an overgrown backyard garden.

"There's quite a big difference between 6 ounces and 6 pounds," Police Chief Jude Gallegos said recently, when the case was filed in Guadalupe County Magistrate Court.

Margaret Hall, 68, of Santa Rosa (formerly of fort Sumner), was charged with possession of more than 8 ounces of marijuana, which is a 4th degree felony. Because she has no criminal record and cooperated fully with the investigation, authorities say she's a strong candidate for a pre-prosecution diversion program. But first she must go through the court system for the first time in her life.

"I've never broken the law in my life. I didn't mean to this time," Hall told The Communicator on Tuesday. "It just got away from me and I didn't know what to do with it."

She was referring to her backyard garden. Hall, who suffers from multiple medical conditions that leave her with severe pain in her back and legs, said that medical marijuana is a better option for her than traditional pharmaceuticals, which leave her with bad side effects.

Because it can be so expensive — up to $400 an ounce — she has tried over the past several years to grow her own.

"I just never had that much luck," she said. "One year the hail got it. The next year there were bugs. And then this year, it just went crazy."

According to a statement of probable cause filed in the Magistrate Court, in mid-September police said they found a jungle of tall, budding marijuana plants growing in containers in a fenced-off section of the woman's backyard. Some stalks were towering near the roof line of her house and peeking through the lattice fencing.

Since late 2011, Hall has had valid medical cannabis and growers cards issued by the New Mexico Department of Health. However, police say she greatly exceeded the specific limits stated on the back of the cards themselves.

Under a 2007 law called the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, one card stated that she was allowed to have no more than four mature cannabis plants and 12 seedlings. "Under New Mexico Law, card holders are legally permitted to use and process up to six (6) ounces (170 grams) of usable marijuana," the card stated.

According to the statement of probable cause, the garden actually contained 14 fully-grown marijuana plants, some of which were up to 7-feet tall. Hall cooperated with investigators and signed a form giving police consent to search her property. Under direction of the 4th Judicial District Attorney's office, 10 of the plants were confiscated. The court records describe how the officers cut the thick stalks, stored and dried the materials over several days, and then took five hours separating the usable marijuana from the rest of the plant material, such as stems.

In the end, police said it amounted to more than 6 pounds of marijuana-enough to pack three evidence bags. Gallegos said it was "not even close" to the allowable amounts.

"There's rules and regulations that apply to that card. You can only possess what that card allows," Gallegos said. "She's not exempt from the law. The law is for everybody."

The charging documents state that "Ms. Hall advised that she knew that she had more (than) what the card had stated but was willing to turn over the extra to the police department."

After a few years struggling to get just a few plants to grow, when the bumper crop came, "They just got away from me and I just didn't know what to do about it," Hall said. "There's no way I could utilize all that."

She said she worried about what to do — notify authorities and risk getting in trouble, or leaving it in place and fear that "thugs" might target her home. When police finally showed up to investigate, it was a relief, she said.

But now, more than a month since the search, she has to face the criminal charge.

Due to the amount of marijuana, Police Chief Gallegos recommended the felony possession charge, saying that just because somebody has a medical cannabis card "doesn't mean you can exceed what you're allowed."

The investigation was referred to 4th Judicial District Attorney Richard Flores' office, and on Friday Flores told The Communicator he was approving Chief Gallegos' recommendation for the felony charge.

On Monday, Flores said that Hall "definitely qualifies" for a pre-prosecution diversion program, "which is something I will seriously look at, especially since she was cooperative with the investigation from the onset and she has no prior felony convictions."

Chief Gallegos also said Hall was cooperative throughout the investigation but said he recommended the felony charge because it's important to apply the law consistently.

"I don't want people to get the impression I'm picking and choosing. The law is for everybody," Gallegos said. "She had a large amount of marijuana, not just a baggie full."

Copyright 2015 De Baca County News, Fort Sumner, New Mexico. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: November 5, 2015

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