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Medical marijuana status incidental to busted veterans

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Matthew Crane, with VeteransRespond, says he feels targeted by law enforcement for possessing a small amount medical marijuana. Crane was cited Friday while trying to reach the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps in what he describes as a humanitarian mission. 

While North Dakota struggles with implementing its newly approved medical marijuana status, a U.S. Navy veteran was cited in Morton County for possessing a few grains of marijuana from an out-of-state licensed dispensary.

Matthew Crane, 33, of New York, was cited Friday while trying to reach the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline camps in what he describes as a humanitarian mission to feed and assist veterans who are in the camps and help with the clean-up effort.

Crane served from 2001 to 2006 in avionics and ordnance support for a decorated combat search-and-rescue mission in Kuwait and Iraq. His honorable discharge was followed by a rough slide into civilian life. He is a recovering addict and had repeatedly attempted suicide. His brother, also a veteran, committed suicide four months ago.

He said of that prescription and those bits of marijuana in his medical kit: “It saved my life, pure and simple.”

Crane and three others in the vehicle encountered police while on the wrong side of the Highway 1806 protest roadblock after depending on a phone navigation system and following other local traffic doing the same thing.

According to the police report: “The four occupants included Matthew Crane, co-founder of the VeteransRespond group, which is known to be at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps. One of the occupants turned over a smoking device identified as a pipe used to ingest marijuana. At that point, all occupants and their luggage were removed from the vehicle and searched by the K-9. A bag of marijuana was located with Crane’s name on it. Crane acknowledged that possession of marijuana is illegal in North Dakota. He was cited for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.”

Crane said he was looking for police because he knew he was lost and describes his encounter with law enforcement as respectful and friendly. He said they all shook hands and the officers took his VeteransRespond business card to contact him if they encountered any veterans in need of assistance. Crane said his marijuana was in his medicine bag, along with other VA prescriptions, properly labeled.

He said he was dumbstruck when Morton County later released a press statement on Monday, with him as the headliner for being cited with drug possession. The same release cited a South Dakota occurrence Feb. 9 when another veteran, and his friend, also on their way to the camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, were arrested for possession of hash oil, used for medicinal purposes. That man, Travis Biolette, had his vehicle and camping gear confiscated by police and was released Monday, according to VeteransRespond.

The combination of both arrests — and the press release emphasis on the men’s veteran status —  make Crane believe that camp-bound veterans are being unfairly targeted by local police.

“If so, it’s disgusting, absurd and discouraging,” Crane said. “I’m honestly appalled at how I was treated by Morton County’s public relations team and their leadership.”

His citation carries a March 28 court date.

Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said the officers weren’t targeting the veterans for their connection to the protest camps.

“It’s just that was the reason that they were here. We’ve had no contact with them and with what they want to do. We don’t know their intentions, or if they are associated with that Stand with Standing Rock group,” Kirchmeier said.

Kirchmeier said whether the marijuana was a prescription and for a medicinal purpose was not an exception his officers could make.

“I don’t know if it’s my place to comment on what it was being used for. All I know is what the law says, and it’s not legal in North Dakota, prescription or not,” he said.

Mark Sanderson is executive director for VeteransRespond and said his group shouldn’t be confused with VeteransStand, the group that poured into the protest camps in December raising more than $1 million in crowdfunding and vowing to protect protesters from police actions.

He, too, wants to know why Crane was “called out” in a press release for what amounted to a ticketable offense.

“Why put out a press release with our name on it? We don’t really understand why we’re being targeted and we’re already in contact with the ACLU," he said.

Sanderson said the VeteransRespond mission at the protest camps on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is similar to when the U.S. Air Force 82nd Airborne went to assist after the Haiti earthquake.

“We did not come to get into conflict with law enforcement. We do not advocate nonviolent direct action. There’s a lot of trash at the camp, and we want to help clean up,” Sanderson said. “There are so many homeless and stranded veterans still there from December. We’re feeding them, and we’ve already evacuated about 12 of them to a retreat center in Wisconsin.”

Sanderson said the police emphasis on the veterans’ possession of drugs casts both their mission and their medical history in an unfair light. He said the group’s main message to North Dakota and to law enforcement is: “We come in peace, not to cause harm.”

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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