Medical Marijuana protest
SEAN SPERRY/CHRONICLE Misty Lee Carey holds a sign in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse Tuesday in protest of recent federal raids of medical marijuana providers.

Gallatin Valley medical marijuana businesses were open Tuesday, but many questions remained about what prompted federal raids of dispensaries across the state Monday.

"We are open today," Misty Carey, owner of Mary Jane's Kitchen in Bozeman, said Tuesday. "I sent a mass text to the staff this morning saying, ‘Business as usual. Camo optional.'"

The U.S. attorney's office Tuesday said federal agents executed 26 search warrants in 13 cities and towns across the state in the first major crackdown on medical marijuana businesses since the industry took off last year.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. attorney's office said the raids followed an 18-month investigation. However, federal officials did not make clear what distinguished the businesses raided Monday from other medical marijuana operations across the state, which have been operating since 2009 with the understanding that the Obama administration was not interested in prosecuting medical marijuana providers who comply with state law.

The businesses raided were suspected of violating federal laws prohibiting the manufacturing of marijuana with the intent to sell it, along with related offenses, according to federal officials. No charges have been filed against any of the raided businesses.

"Twenty-six search warrants were carried out yesterday where there is probable cause that the premises were involved in illegal and large-scale trafficking of marijuana," Michael W. Cotter, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, said in Tuesday's statement. "When criminal networks violate federal laws those involved will be prosecuted."

The statement noted that individuals with illnesses who are in "clear and unambiguous compliance with state law are not the focus of this investigation."

Along with medical marijuana businesses in Four Corners and Belgrade, federal officials said searches were conducted in Big Sky, Billings, Columbia Falls, Dillon, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City, Missoula, Olney and Whitefish. The statement also noted that civil seizure warrants were served Monday for banks in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell, seeking up to $4 million.

The raids surprised Gallatin Valley marijuana providers, business owners said.

Carey said she closed Mary Jane's Kitchen and her other business, KannaKare Health Services, Monday afternoon when she heard about the raids.

Carey said she and her employees gathered up the store's marijuana, edibles, computers and patient records and left.

"All of us, we don't know what to do," Carey said Tuesday.

After leaving her store Monday, she said went home and started making signs.

"I was down on my hands and knees on the floor making signs like ‘Feds out of Montana,'" she said. "Even if I can't get any friends to go, I think I'm going to go stand outside the courthouse this afternoon."

The businesses that were raided were some of the largest medical marijuana providers in the state, Carey said.

Mike Nelson, owner of Greener Pastures, which has shops in Bozeman, Four Corners and Missoula, said he gave all his employees the option to stay home on Tuesday.

"They all said, ‘No,'" Nelson said. "What does going home do? What's the hysterics? If the federal government has a mission here, going home isn't going to stop the mission."

Nelson said he hopes the reason that the businesses were raided is for being out of compliance with state law.

The raids were carried out the same a day that a bill to repeal Montana's medical marijuana law stalled in the state Legislature, leading some medical marijuana advocates to wonder if they were politically motivated.

"Hopefully, it wasn't a random act of federal intervention," he said. "There needs to be some explanation as to what's going on. If the federal government is changing their stance, I think it would be fair to let everybody know and give people a chance to bow out."

Owners of raided shops were left picking up the pieces on Tuesday.

Federal agents with guns drawn entered Randy Leibenguth's store, MCM Caregivers in Belgrade, Leibenguth said. He said employees told him agents came in and handcuffed a female worker, who was later released when the agents saw there were no weapons on the premises.

Leibenguth said Tuesday that he lost $100,000 to $200,000 worth of plants in the raid. He said federal agents left a receipt outlining the items they took, but no answers about why his operation was singled out.

Leibenguth reopened his store Tuesday, but he said it was only for a short time to help a few patients.

"I want to go open up the doors, but I don't know if they're going to come in and start raiding us again," he said. "I'm gonna hold off and let the dust settle."

Leibenguth said he planned to spend Tuesday dealing with lawyers, answering patients' questions and cleaning up.

"They left trash all over my yard," he said. "They pretty much uprooted all the plants and just left all the dirt on the floor."

Montana voters in 2004 approved an initiative legalizing medical marijuana; however, the number of patients in Montana has ballooned since 2009, when the Obama administration said it would not prosecute medical marijuana providers who were following their states' laws.

Since then, the number of medical marijuana patients, or card-holders, has jumped from about 1,000 to 28,000.

Some groups believe Montana's initiative has been abused.

In a statement Tuesday, Save Our Society from Drugs, a national drug policy organization with members in Montana, said the Drug Enforcement Agency was right to raid the shops. The group said voters who intended to help chronically-ill people instead got "community pot shops."

"Montana's proliferation of pot shops is a perfect illustration of the negative consequences associated with marijuana programs, and the DEA should be commended for stepping in to shut down these illegal operations," Calvina Fay, executive director of Save Our Society from Drugs, said in the statement. "The medi-pot program in Montana is beyond repair, and I am encouraged that the Legislature is considering landmark legislation to put an end to the charade."

Meanwhile, providers said they're being flooded with calls from people concerned about whether the raids will affect their ability to get marijuana.

When Mary Jane's Kitchen reopened Tuesday morning, Carey said patients were waiting at her door.

"The patients are extremely nervous," she said. "They're nervous about losing their medicine."

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.