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heroinbust-300x198The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York recently announced indictments of ten individuals for their roles in an East Coast heroin trafficking ring. Three of the defendants hail from Annapolis, which officials allege is where the heroin began the journey to its final destination in Schenectady, NY. After arriving in this suburb of Albany various New York based co-conspirators allegedly packaged the drugs and sold them in the Plattsburgh area, just a few hours drive from the Canadian border. The defendants vary in age, but each is under 35, and one was actually a state corrections officer until his arrest back in June. The three Maryland based defendants are all under the age of 30, with the youngest being just 19. This teenage defendant now faces between 5 and 40 years in federal prison, with the 5-year number representing the minimum mandatory sentence that must be imposed should he be convicted.

The other local co-conspirators include a 24-year old male who is facing a drug trafficking sentence of 10 years to life, and a 28-year old female who is facing up to 20 years for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. The 24-year old defendant is no stranger to the Maryland state judicial system, as he pled guilty to CDS possession with intent to distribute in Anne Arundel County back in 2012. His probation was violated shortly thereafter and an 18-month jail sentence followed. In addition to the federal indictment, the 24-year old is also set for an August trial date in Annapolis for numerous drug charges stemming from two separate state court cases. These charges are all drug related, and include distribution of narcotics and CDS possession of a large amount. The other Annapolis based defendants have relatively minor criminal records, which include two cases where each charged the other for assault. Prosecutors will likely end up dropping these cases, as the pair could assert their mutual 5th Amendment rights and choose not to testify. Regardless of what happens in these assault cases the defendants clearly have bigger issues to deal with up north.

The announcement by the Northern District of New York that a large heroin trafficking ring originated right here in Anne Arundel County came just as the governor announced 2018 allotments for the emergency opioid abuse funds. Last year the governor pledged $50 million to battle the record breaking heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and the money will be dispersed over the course of 5 years to various state and local agencies. The majority of the cash next year is going to inpatient treatment programs, naloxone supplies, public awareness platforms for opioid abuse and law enforcement efforts to dismantle drug trafficking rings. Baltimore City has been hit especially hard by drug overdoses, and the state has responded by allocating $2 million for a city crisis center. The Blog will continue to monitor this federal case and other state cases related to drug trafficking. We anticipate more drug busts making news headlines in the coming months as law enforcement agencies will be eager to show the governor the funding is being put to good use. However, it remains to be seen whether the emergency funding will begin to reverse the overdose numbers that are sadly trending in the wrong direction.

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police-224426__180Back in February seven Baltimore Police officers from the department’s gun task force were indicted on federal racketeering charges with allegations that the officers extorted and stole money from citizens, falsified police reports and collected fraudulent overtime payments. While all of the cases are still pending, it is now expected that four of the officers will enter guilty pleas sometime in the near future. The other three officers though appear to be in more hot water after the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a federal grand jury returned a new indictment last week. The superseding indictment charges the three officers with additional counts of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. All told the offers were implicated in as many as 13 robberies that yielded over $280,000 in cash, firearms and 2 kilograms of cocaine, and now the details of some of these criminal acts are coming to light.

The new six-count indictment alleges that as far back as 2011 the officers illegally detained or entered the homes of suspected drug dealers with the intent to steal their narcotics and money. The officers allegedly conducted traffic stops without probable cause and even went as far as swearing to made up search warrant affidavits to gain access to suspects’ homes and vehicles. There are also allegations of burglarizing a storage unit to carry out a cocaine theft, stealing 20 pounds of marijuana during a drug deal and robbing a stripper. The incident that is gaining the most media attention though was a brazen home invasion robbery where the officers hired two civilians to steal a large amount of cash from the owner of a pigeon store in the southern Baltimore neighborhood of Brooklyn. While conducting a search warrant on the store the gun task force officers learned that the owner was in possession of $20,000 cash that was to be used to pay off a tax debt to the IRS. The officers left the store without taking any money, but later conspired with two civilians to steal the cash at a later date. After locating the store owner’s home address using a law enforcement database the officers provided the address as well as tactical gear including bullet proof vests and weapons to the civilians. The two civilians then robbed the store owner at gunpoint after posing as cops attempting to execute a search warrant.

The store owner reported the incident to the Baltimore Police several times, and filed an internal affairs complaint to no avail. While there was no official word from BPD on what exactly happened with the IA report, it is now assumed that the investigation was turned over to the feds in order to continue to build a case against the corrupt city cops. All seven of the officers face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering and conspiracy charges and some may face additional penalties for robbery and felony firearms offenses. The firearm offenses could trigger mandatory minimum sentences as well, so it will be interesting to see what type of plea deals the first four officers agree to accept. The Blog will continue to follow all of these cases and may post a follow up article in the near future with an update. If you or a loved one is facing state or federal criminal charges contact Benjamin Herbst. He has represented hundreds of defendants charged with gun crimes, robbery, theft and drug trafficking and is available anytime for a free consultation.

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heroin3-300x169Police departments, lawmakers and even the governor have made combatting drug overdoses a major point of emphasis over the last few years. Many law enforcement agencies are training their officers in overdose recognition and equipping them with overdose prevention drugs. Police are now responding to the scene of a possible overdose with the mindset that their first call of duty could be saving a life rather than making an arrest. Lawmakers are tying to do their part as well by creating legislation aimed at punishing drug dealers whose product causes a death, and attempting to protect those who offer aid to overdose victims. The governor has always taken a hardline stance against heroin, highlighted by his recent declaration that opioid use is now in an official state of emergency warranting an additional $50 million in resources. Numerous citizen based community organizations have also joined forces with the government in this battle, but despite their best efforts the overdose numbers are heading in the wrong direction.

According to data recently released by the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene the number of statewide deadly overdoses increased by a whopping 66% from 2015 to 2016. This puts last year’s total number of deaths at 2,089, which is the highest ever and triple the amount from 2010. About one third of these deaths occurred in Baltimore City, with the majority of the others occurring in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Prince George’s County and Montgomery County rounded out the top five of this unfortunate statistic. Only two jurisdictions, Cecil County and St. Mary’s County reported declines in the number of deadly overdoses from 2015 to 2016.

The majority of victims were found with multiple drugs in their system, and not surprisingly the most common drugs present in the deceased were heroin and fentanyl. These two opioids have been public enemy number one in both urban and rural areas in the region for the last couple of years. The rise of fentanyl has been well documented but despite the awareness there are no signs that it even remotely close to being controlled. This deadly synthetic opioid, which is often mixed with or sold as heroin, contributed to over 1,100 Maryland deaths in 2016, up from 350 in 2015.   Alcohol, which continues to get a pass in due to its deep roots in American culture, contributed to around 30% of the deaths and cocaine to around a quarter. Prescription opioids such as morphine and oxycodone that were once a leading cause of overdoses were just the fourth leading cause last year in the state.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Federal law enforcement officers from agencies such as the FBI, DEA and ATF rarely patrol our streets, and they have far less contact with the public than state and local officers. As a result, common firearms crimes such as possession of a handgun are typically handled in state court, as local police officers are usually the ones making the arrests on these cases. A typical federal firearms case could involve the ATF busting an illegal gun trafficking ring or the DEA making a drug bust and seizing firearms in the process. Each of these examples usually involves a formal investigation possibly including confidential informants, wiretaps and search warrants where the feds continue to build a case as the crime is ongoing. In contrast a state firearms case typically starts as a traffic stop or a call to investigate a completed crime. This type of case rarely ends up in U.S. court, but federal prosecutors in Baltimore are trying to get the word out that no gun case is too trivial for their caseload.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that five men have been found guilty of federal firearms crimes that originated in state court. Four were Baltimore City cases and one was an Anne Arundel County case. The men were originally facing charges in the respective state circuit courts, but these cases were all closed after the assistant state’s attorneys announced them as nolle prosequi and forwarded the files over to their federal counterparts. The charges the men are facing vary, as two are charged with illegal gun possession, two are charged in relation to drug trafficking and one in relation to an assault. But the one constant is that all five of the defendants were convicted of a felony prior to being arrested on the current charges. Federal prosecutors in Baltimore are taking affirmative measures to let state prosecutors know they will gladly take any case that involves possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. With resources that dwarf its state court neighbors, the Baltimore federal court has a much higher conviction rate for gun crimes, and the  criminal code may provide higher penalties in some cases. Currently a defendant in U.S. court for illegal possession of a handgun faces up to 10 years in prison. A defendant who carries a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime faces an additional 5-year mandatory sentence. If the gun is brandished the mandatory sentence increases to 7 years, and if it is fired it increases yet again to 10 years. There are also mandatory penalties for crimes involving assault weapons and short-barreled shotguns and rifles.

There is a broad class of individuals that are prohibited from possessing a firearm under U.S. law; if you think only convicted felons are prohibited then think again. In reality any person convicted of a crime that carries a maximum penalty of more than a year, anyone who is an unlawful user of a controlled substance and anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence could face federal firearms charges for possessing a gun. Each of the five men currently in custody and awaiting sentencing has learned the hard way that the feds are not messing around when it comes to gun possession in Baltimore. However it remains to be seen whether these efforts will serve as a deterrent to future offenders. The Blog will continue to follow these five cases as well as other state cases that are picked up by the feds. We may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned. Benjamin Herbst is a state and federal gun lawyer that handles illegal possession by a convicted felon and transportation cases in all Maryland courts. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation about your case anytime at 410-207-2598.

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drink-driving-808790_960_720-300x200Three State Police Troopers were injured last week in two separate drunk driving related accidents. Both accidents occurred in Prince George’s County and in an even greater coincidence both took place on Route 4. Also known as Pennsylvania Avenue, Route 4 runs from Washington D.C. to Calvert County, and passes through Upper Marlboro and Dunkirk. With easy access to and from 495 it is a highway that has witnessed more than its share of drug and alcohol related traffic incidents. State and local law enforcement officers frequently patrol this stretch of road, and have a heightened awareness for DUI on nights and weekends. These two recent accidents should only serve to increase the police presence in the coming months.

The first accident last week occurred around 3:30 a.m. as a trooper was attending to a disabled vehicle. While the trooper was stopped on the side of the highway an SUV driven by a 37 year old man from Upper Marlboro collided into his police cruiser. The impact then sent the cruiser lunging forward into a pedestrian who was standing beside a guardrail. Both the trooper and the pedestrian were taken to the hospital, while the SUV driver was arrested on multiple traffic citations and taken into custody by another trooper from the Forestville Barrack. The man now faces charges of DUI, DWI, reckless and negligent driving, failure to control speed to avoid a collision and willfully disobeying the direction of a police officer. He is currently awaiting a trial date in the District Court of Maryland for Prince George’s County not far from the scene of the accident.

The second accident occurred just a few days later after two troopers in separate police cruisers were responding to a call about a suspected impaired driver traveling the wrong way on the highway. In efforts to locate the impaired driver one of the troopers accidentally rear-ended the other, sending the lead car across the median and down an embankment. Both troopers were taken to the hospital, with one being air lifted to shock trauma in Baltimore. An officer from the Natural Resources Police later arrested the suspect that the troopers were trying to locate. This suspect did not contribute directly to an accident so will likely only face standard DUI and DWI charges, but you can bet that the prosecutor will call attention to the fact that two troopers were injured in the pursuit.

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backhoe-413903_1280-300x158Police are on the hunt for a brazen thief who recently attempted to steal an ATM machine with a construction backhoe in Prince George’s County. The failed heist was caught on closed circuit television cameras stationed on the exterior of a Capital Heights bank, and the footage was later handed over to police. The video shows an unidentified person riding up to the bank parking lot aboard a tractor, which investigators determined was driven several miles on public roads to reach the scene of the crime. Upon arriving, the suspect positioned the excavating equipment for maximum destruction and repeatedly used its backhoe to strike the unsuspecting cash machine. Sparks and pieces of plastic flew, and after a minute or so the cash machine was unrecognizable. Fortunately though the ATM’s thick armor proved too strong for the backhoe to penetrate, and the suspect fled the scene with no extra cash in hand. In the valiant effort to retain all its legal tender, the ATM did suffer an estimated $10,000 worth of damages.

Prince George’s County police detectives have reason to believe this theft was related to a prior successful ATM theft at a tobacco shop, where the perpetrator gained entry through the roof. In addition to stealing cash the unidentified perp also made out with hundreds of cartons of cigarettes. It is unclear why detectives believe the two unorthodox crimes are related, or whether they have any legitimate leads on a possible suspect. If a suspect happens to be apprehended then he or she will face a slew of charges in the district and circuit courts in Hyattsville and Upper Marlboro. In the backhoe case the suspect would likely be charged with motor vehicle theft, trespass and malicious destruction of property. The particular theft charge filed in this case would depend on the amount of cash inside the ATM. Police would have the bank open the machine and total up the value of the bills, and any amount over $1,000 would trigger a felony theft charge. Prosecutors could even add the value of the machine itself, which would surely escalate the charge to a theft $10,000 to $100,000.

If police crack the tobacco shop case the defendant would face similar charges to the ATM case, with the addition of felony burglary counts. The act of breaking into a store with the intent to steal something would generally trigger a charge of second degree burglary that carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years. If a burglar steals a firearm the punishment could increase to a maximum 20 years, which is the same penalty as a first degree home burglary. The Blog will continue to follow this case to see if police develop any leads that could produce a suspect. Investigators may have a tough time unless the thief left any physical evidence behind such as personal belongings or perhaps DNA and fingerprints. Police did not release the entire video to the public, including the part where the suspect fled so there may already be some leads. We will post another article if police catch a break and end up making an arrest. Benjamin Herbst handles burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property cases in all Maryland courts. If you have a case or a question feel free to call Benjamin anytime to discuss.

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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225A recent Maryland Court of Appeals order likely prevented months of further delays to the medical marijuana program, and now registered patients may have access to cannabis by the end of the summer. The high court order blocked a Baltimore City judge from conducting a hearing about whether to stop the state medical cannabis commission from issuing more final grow licenses. Only one of the fifteen approved growers currently has a final license that allows the legal commencement of the cultivation process. The other fourteen were not able to secure a final license under the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s temporary restraining order, which was requested by minority owned grow companies that were not one of the fifteen to receive preliminary licenses to operate. The restraining order was supposed to expire on the date of the hearing, but now there will be no hearing and the order has expired.

The Court of Appeals did not release a full opinion on the matter, but rather stayed the restraining order portion of the lawsuit that is challenging whether the licensing process took race into account as required by law. The disgruntled growers requested the restraining order after arguing they would suffer greater harm should the medical marijuana program be allowed to proceed before their lawsuit is resolved. The Baltimore judge had barred the fourteen growers awaiting final licenses from participating in the restraining order hearing, which raised issues of fairness and standing, and may have prompted the Court of Appeals to issue the emergency order. Another issue the high court likely considered was the amount of money the licensed growers invested and stood to lose if the growing process was halted indefinitely. Lawyers argued that the companies who received preliminary licenses invested over $150 million in final preparation to begin growing and distributing.

Over the last four years most of the news headlines pertaining to medical marijuana here in Maryland have focused on incompetence, delays and corruption. News of the recent order by the Court of Appeals appears to buck this trend, and we could finally be approaching the home stretch where the first dose of medical cannabis reaches a patient in need. Estimates of the program officially becoming active in late summer are cautiously optimistic, but at this point there does not appear to be any impending issues that could threaten this timeline. There is always the risk that the federal government could somehow get involved, though this appears unlikely. The state’s highest court has spoken rather loudly that it believes medical marijuana should proceed without further delay. Whether the program could abruptly be halted sometime again in the future is another question, and one that will constantly be hanging over the heads of the licensed growers, distributors and patients. It has been argued that the licensing process was unconstitutional at its core, and this issue will be resolved in court or by way of negotiated settlement. A settlement however would likely have to involve the legislature granting additional license to the aggrieved parties, which is a long shot and would have legal issues of its own. For now though the medical cannabis program steams ahead and the Blog will continue to follow any more potential hiccups.

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pills_money-300x199The Maryland State Police recently announced the indictments of 18 defendants in a large drug conspiracy that spanned numerous counties and stretched into Delaware. The investigation began last fall state when police investigators received information that a male suspect was involved in a drug trafficking ring operating out of Queen Anne’s County. Narcotics detectives had reason to believe that this particular suspect, who lived in Kent County, assisted in the importation and distribution of large amounts of opioids including oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, methadone and heroin throughout the state. Further investigation also revealed this suspect’s alleged involvement with another Kent County man in cocaine trafficking. Both male suspects were self employed, which further peaked the interests of law enforcement officers about the possibility of ongoing money laundering. As the investigation progressed, police officers from numerous jurisdictions including Talbot County and Anne Arundel County coordinated their efforts to develop more suspects in the case. Delaware State Police, Natural Resources Police, and local departments from Chestertown and Centreville also assisted, and the culmination of this investigation occurred this past week with the announcement of 18 arrests from indictments in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne’s County.

The two original suspects now face over 50 charges apiece, including multiple counts for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and CDS. According to the State Police report these two defendants allegedly conspired to import over 3.5 pounds of cocaine and 5000 pills, including 4000 of oxycodone and 50 pills each of morphine and fentanyl in just one 6-week period. The street value of these drugs is estimated at $130,000. Oddly, neither defendant faces any felony charges on these indictments; Maryland law classifies all conspiracy crimes as common law misdemeanors. But despite being misdemeanors, many of these counts carry 20-year maximum penalties, which state prosecutors will undoubtedly use as leverage to during plea negotiations. The extraordinarily high bails, one being $250,000 and the other being $350,000 also reflect the severity of these charges. There does not appear to be any physical evidence directly attributed to the two main defendants at this time (hence the conspiracy charges), though law enforcement did execute numerous search and seizure warrants and recovered a great deal of contraband. All told, there were 14 firearms, hundreds of pills, crack cocaine, marijuana and almost $100,000 dollars in U.S. currency recovered. Police also seized 15 vehicles that may be kept and then auctioned under state forfeiture laws.

The Blog will continue to follow this case as it progresses through the circuit court. It will be interesting to see whether there are any suppression issues raised in pre-trial proceedings, as it is unclear how police received all of their information. In any large-scale criminal investigation police often receive much of their intelligence from confidential informants, though CI’s alone will not suffice if the kingpins are careful. Prior coordinated law enforcement operations on the Eastern Shore have benefitted from the use of wiretap warrants, which could have sealed the fate of the defendants in this case.

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drugs-22237_640-300x198Lawmakers have made numerous attempts to curb the heroin epidemic in Maryland, and the governor has gone so far as to pronounce a state of emergency as overdose numbers continue to spike. Some Annapolis legislators considered passing a law that would allow the state to prosecute drug dealers under an enhanced 30-year jail penalty if their product caused a death, and we may see similar bills hit the state house floor in the future. State law enforcement is also joining in the fight, as Baltimore murder police are now beginning to investigate drug overdoses for potential links to dealers. The city police commissioner recently announced that five detectives working out of the homicide department will respond to both fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Baltimore is not the first jurisdiction to seek criminal evidence at overdose scenes, as Harford County narcotics detectives have already been showing up with first responder medics for the last two years. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office though was forced to scale this initiative back, as the sheer amount of overdoses proved too tough to manage.

State’s Attorney’s Offices around Maryland have also tried to do their part in furthering the agenda to combat the overdose epidemic. We previously posted about a defendant in Worcester County that was convicted and sentenced under state manslaughter law for selling heroin that ultimately resulted in a deadly overdose. Now another state prosecutor’s office has reported a manslaughter conviction in a CDS narcotics distribution case, and the defendant received the maximum penalty provided by the law. A Waldorf woman was just sentenced to 10 years in state prison in the Circuit Court for Charles County for selling fentanyl to man who later died of a drug overdose. The woman allegedly told the deceased buyer that her product was heroin when she knew that it was actually fentanyl, a far more powerful narcotic. This was reportedly the first time a defendant was convicted for manslaughter for selling drugs involved in an overdose in Charles County. The 34 year-old woman was also recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for another unrelated drug distribution charge, and was convicted and sentenced to probation on a third controlled dangerous substance case.

Law enforcement and state prosecutors may continue to seek enhanced penalties for drug dealers whose buyers overdose, but the deterrent effect of these measures is tough gauge. Harford County made a legitimate effort to seek out and prosecute dealers by investigating overdoses, but after two years their fatal and non-fatal overdose numbers remain largely unchanged. Efforts in Baltimore City may suffer the same fate, as the heroin epidemic is not under control in Maryland or anywhere else in America for that matter. In response to the public outcry government officials such as lawmakers, police chiefs and state’s attorneys tend to take the easy way out by announcing new initiatives to target suppliers. But a press release or two about a dealer serving extra time in prison gives these officials a false sense of accomplishment. The overdose numbers are not decreasing, and rather than targeting the endless supply of small time dealers officials should focus more on education, treatment and perhaps safe zones for users. While legalization and strict regulation of heroin would eliminate the type of street overdoses in the Worcester and Charles County cases, this is not a realistic solution at this point in time. The fact that legalization does not even warrant serious discussion is unfortunate, but there will come a time when government officials will have no choice but to consider it.

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potgrow1-300x225Medical marijuana growers throughout Maryland are putting the finishing touches on their multi million-dollar greenhouses, and after 4 years of waiting some are prepared to start planting or processing powerful strands of pot within a matter of weeks. But enthusiasm within the walls of the 23 state licensed grow and processing facilities is somewhat tempered as numerous impediments to commencing operations remain. The latest impediment comes in the form of an emergency motion filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, which requests a judge to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the state cannabis commission from issuing final grow licenses. One of the companies that did not receive a preliminary grow license filed the motion on the grounds that the commission ignored a portion of the law that requires actively seeking racial and ethnic diversity throughout the licensing process. Lawyers learned of this omission during ongoing depositions as part of the discovery process of pending litigation against the state. This request for a temporary restraining order comes on the heels of the governor issuing an executive order requesting a study whether minority companies face disadvantages in the medical marijuana industry. In addition, it still remains a possibility that lawmakers may be recalled to Annapolis for a special legislative session to address racial diversity concerns with respect to the 15 awarded grow licenses.

As if the restraining order motion and the governor’s inquiry into the fairness of the process weren’t enough, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is now under fire for possibly circumventing public contract bidding regulations. State officials with the Office of Legislative Audits have been critical of how the commission awarded the contract to evaluate grower and distributor licenses to an economic studies group at Towson University. It turns out that Towson charged 60 percent more per application that had originally been budgeted for, and the price to review the 512 applications came to a whopping $2.6 million. Auditors clearly believe that the commission spent too much of the state’s money, and it probably did. However at the time the commission was severely inexperienced and underfunded, and ill equipped to handle hundreds more applications than expected. There was understandably tons of pressure to get the straggling medical marijuana program off the ground, and the commission likely made a decision to have the applications reviewed by a competent institution as quickly as possible.

Towson has yet to receive payment on the $2.6 million bill but they are expecting the state to pick up the entire tab. The bottom line is that the university did the work and whatever excess costs were incurred should really be attributed to lawmakers. The process to evaluate and rank the applications was extremely complicated, and placing an arbitrary limit of 15 licenses was short sighted and illogical. In addition, the commission was not afforded adequate resources to do its job, as commissioners were volunteers from the state who did not receive specialized training. Taxpayers would have been better served by a commission made up of a paid, full-time staff with experience implementing one of the many medical marijuana programs in the country.