By Emilie Ritter
HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - Federal agents raided state-sanctioned medical marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in several Montana cities on Monday, prompting an outcry from legalized pot suppliers.
The raids marked the first such crackdown in Montana by the federal government since a state ballot measure legalizing cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical purposes was overwhelmingly approved by voters there in 2004.
The busts also appeared to mark a reversal of the policy the Obama administration announced in 2009 when the Justice Department issued guidelines calling a halt to federal raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries.
Marijuana is still considered an illegal narcotic under federal law.
The supply chain of pot-growing facilities and storefront dispensaries allowed under Montana's medical marijuana statute is little regulated and has expanded rapidly during the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the number of medical marijuana patients, or card-holders, has jumped from about 1,000 to 28,000 in that state.
Victoria Francis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Billings, confirmed that federal agents served search warrants across Montana, but she declined to give further details until the warrants were "unsealed."
A medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, said nearly a dozen dispensaries and cultivation operations were raided by federal agents on Monday in such towns as Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Helena.
There were no arrests reported in connection with the sweep. A copy of a search warrant obtained by the group from one of the cultivation operations raided said agents were out to confiscate marijuana, drug paraphernalia, computers, firearms, cell phones, cash and vehicle titles.
Chris Williams, co-owner of Montana Cannabis west of Helena, one of the biggest medical marijuana operations in the state, said his entire crop of nearly 1,700 pot plants were seized from a greenhouse facility about half the length of a football field.
"This is ridiculous", said Williams, whose operation serves nearly 300 patients. "I don't participate in interstate commerce. I only do business in Montana, and our state has made this legal for our citizens."
Williams said agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Administration, seized all of Montana Cannabis' computers, paperwork, plants and medicine, with assistance from local law enforcement.
"Basically, they've completely uprooted our business as best they can, without any reason other than they say, federally, marijuana is illegal" Williams said.
The Obama administration has delivered somewhat mixed messages about the liberalization of medical marijuana laws at the state level.
In a departure from the stance taken by the Bush administration, the Justice Department said in October 2009 it would no longer prosecute patients who use medical marijuana, or dispensaries that distribute it, in states where marijuana has been legalized for such purposes.
But in response to a measure on the California ballot last year that would have legalized small amounts of cannabis for recreational use in that state, Attorney General Eric Holder said in October 2010 that the U.S. government would continue to prosecute people in California for possessing and growing marijuana.
That ballot measure was defeated in the November, 2010 election.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)