MONTVILLE — By the time investigators from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency completed their 12-hour search at the Montville home of Randy and Margot Hayes, they had chopped down 57 marijuana plants – some as tall as 7 feet and visible from Center Road – and seized 11 pounds of marijuana. Inside the home, they had found bags and totes of marijuana and signs the couple were selling pot.

The Hayeses, longtime medical marijuana patients, now face up to five years in prison for felony drug trafficking and misdemeanor marijuana cultivation charges in what appears to be an open-and-shut case of illegal drug dealing. The number of marijuana plants found growing at their home, for example, far exceeds the six flowering and 12 nonflowering plants each patient is allowed to possess under the state’s medical marijuana law.

But the Hayeses say the case isn’t what it appears to be – and others in the state’s medical marijuana community are rallying around the couple, saying they are the victims of overly aggressive drug enforcement and ambiguity in the state’s medical marijuana rules.

Randy Hayes, who has a previous conviction for misdemeanor drug trafficking, says many of the plants seized by agents belonged to five other medical marijuana patients who were growing on his land. He says he and his wife were trying to comply with the law, but didn’t realize the plants had to be in separate secure enclosures.

Their supporters argue that the number of plants seized wasn’t over the limit for seven patients because, at that time of the year – mid-August – marijuana plants growing outdoors haven’t reached the flowering stage. So none of the plants was yet producing any of the psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol.

The Hayeses and their supporters also say the 11 pounds of marijuana seized by agents didn’t violate the law because each patient is allowed to have up to 8 pounds of unprocessed marijuana, though the exact definition of unprocessed marijuana isn’t clear to them under the medical marijuana program rules.

The Hayeses are scheduled to appear in court again Tuesday. Meanwhile, the case has developed into one of the highest-profile medical marijuana prosecutions in Maine. Others in the medical marijuana community are holding events to raise money for the couple’s legal defense and watching the outcome closely.

“Alarmed would be the big word,” said Dawson Julia, a caregiver from Unity and a supporter of the couple. “If we make a mistake in our business practices, we shouldn’t be thrown in jail for it. It seems like people are getting in trouble for what would be considered a small violation in another industry.”

But Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA, sees things differently. He said his agency handles a small number of marijuana cases – likely fewer than 100 a year – because most of their resources are used to combat the state’s heroin, opioid and methamphetamine problems. The only recourse for a violation of the medical marijuana law is criminal action, he said.

“Either you’re in compliance or you’re in violation of criminal law,” he said. ‘There’s no gray area there.”

INDUSTRY TAKES ROOT

What happens in the Hayes case will have implications for a medical marijuana industry that has taken root and flourished, attracting a growing number of patients and caregivers. That’s especially true in rural areas, where residents don’t have easy access to any of the state’s eight licensed dispensaries.

Maine is one of 34 states that allow some form of medical cannabis. Maine legalized medical uses in 1999, and the state’s first dispensaries opened in 2011. Last year, Maine’s program was voted the best medical marijuana program in the country by Americans for Safe Access, a national group that advocates for legal access to the drug.

The state cannot provide an exact number of patients because it does not keep a registry, but doctors have printed more than 35,000 certificates required under state regulations to certify patients. That number could include duplicates and replacement certificates and is likely higher than the actual number of patients, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. There are eight dispensaries across the state and more than 2,200 caregivers authorized to provide medical marijuana to patients.

In 2015, Mainers spent $23.6 million on marijuana from dispensaries, a 46 percent jump from the previous year. Those sales – which don’t include caregivers – generated $1.29 million in sales tax.

The Hayeses pleaded not guilty during their initial court appearance Dec. 11 in Waldo County Unified Court. Judge Patricia Worth set their bail at $500 unsecured each and set conditions that they cannot use or possess illegal drugs. They each face up to five years in prison for the felony drug trafficking charge and no more than a year in prison for the misdemeanor marijuana cultivation charge.

The Waldo County District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, did not respond to requests for comment.

The garden at the home of Randy and Margot Hayes, medical marijuana patients from Montville. The couple were arrested and charged with drug trafficking and illegal marijuana cultivation after an MDEA agent said their garden was not properly enclosed.

The garden at the home of Randy and Margot Hayes, medical marijuana patients from Montville. The couple were arrested and charged with drug trafficking and illegal marijuana cultivation after an MDEA agent said their garden was not properly enclosed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

MDEA AGENTS SHOW UP

The Hayeses live in a 200-year-old farmhouse on Center Road with their two children, whom they home-school. For year, they have grown their own medical marijuana on their property, Five Star Pharm.

Randy Hayes said he has used medical marijuana for many years to treat various medical conditions, including chronic back spasms, because he prefers not to use pharmaceutical drugs. He was convicted of a misdemeanor drug trafficking charge and paid a $500 fine after 22 ounces of marijuana was found on his property in 1998, before the state’s medical marijuana program was in place. He said he had the marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Margot Hayes, 46, has no criminal record. She said she is certified as a medical marijuana patient under a qualifying chronic eye condition, but also finds medical cannabis useful for other ailments.

Until the raid last August, they grew their plants in their side yard, separated from the road by an 8-foot picket fence. Randy Hayes, a 57-year-old former selectman, allowed five friends who are also patients to grow their plants in his yard, free of charge. He said he was teaching them how to grow their own medicine.

Their plants caught the attention of two special agents with the MDEA as they drove down Center Road on Aug. 18. They pulled into the driveway of the Hayes home to talk to the homeowner about the plants, which could be seen over the top of the fence that separated the yard from the road, according to an MDEA investigative report. Randy Hayes told the agents he and his wife were medical marijuana patients.

“(Randy) Hayes was told that the best case scenario is that Hayes shows us that his plants were in compliance. Hayes was told that from where we were standing if Hayes wasn’t perfectly in compliance, he was close, and we would shake hands and leave,” Special Agent Max King wrote in an investigative report. “But if there were vast violations we would handle it differently.”

Randy Hayes walked the investigating agents around the edge of his property where the marijuana plants were growing, but the area was not entirely surrounded by fencing as required, according to the MDEA report. He declined to consent to a search. Agents instead secured a search warrant because of the plants that were visible from the road.

During the search, investigators found 57 marijuana plants in the yard and on a deck, drying marijuana hanging in the barn and what agents described as “loose” marijuana in jars, bags and a plastic tote in various rooms of the house. A man who stopped by the house while MDEA agents were there told investigators that he had been buying marijuana from Randy Hayes weekly for the past two years, according to the investigative report.

Under the rules of the medical marijuana program, patients and caregivers who are not related must grow their plants in separate enclosures. Each patient is allowed to possess up to 2½ ounces of prepared marijuana, six mature plants, 12 female nonflowering plants and up to 8 pounds of unprepared marijuana in varying stages of processing. Only licensed caregivers and dispensaries are allowed to sell marijuana to patients.

The investigative report does not indicate whether the plants were mature or nonflowering, but did describe them as healthy and abundant.

SEEKING CLARITY

Logan Perkins, a Bangor attorney who represents Randy Hayes, believes the MDEA charged the Hayeses with criminal violations for what should have been an administrative issue with the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical marijuana program.

“Those are administrative rules about how you have to conduct yourself to be on the right side of the medial marijuana program,” she said. “Those are not criminal laws. If you’re in violation of a rule, that does not mean you’re in violation of a criminal law.”

The Hayeses did not realize each patient’s plants had to be secured in separate enclosures, according to their attorneys. Each plant was documented so they knew who it belonged to, but their defense attorneys declined to describe the arrangement in more detail. State law prohibits the creation of collectives where caregivers grow marijuana together.

“They were under the impression that putting one fence around the entire thing was the proper way to do it,” said Chris McCabe, a Portland attorney who represents Margot Hayes.

Supporters of the Hayeses hosted a potluck meal and concert Saturday to raise money for their legal defense. G.W. Martin, a former caregiver from Montville who has known the couple for years, hosted the party at his farm. He said many people in the area know the Hayeses, whom he describes as active and charitable members of the community.

“Everybody hopes the best for them,” he said. “We’re all trying to do our best to follow the rules and we’re all behind Randy and Margot. These unclear rules affect everyone statewide.”

Under the medical marijuana program, patients and caregivers do not undergo regular inspections to make sure they are complying with the regulations. Because of that, it can be tricky for patients and caregivers to comply with every aspect of the law, advocates say.

Caregivers in states with medical marijuana programs often operate with very little oversight. Most states do not regularly inspect caregivers to ensure they are growing the proper number of plants and are following the rules, according to a 2015 investigation by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multimedia investigative reporting project.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical marijuana program, declined to comment for this story.

King Bishop, a longtime patient and advocate from nearby Morrill, said there are many patients and caregivers across the state who are frustrated with “gray areas” of the law and want to see more clarity in the rules. Much of that frustration centers on what actually qualifies as a collective and how to define the various stages of marijuana so patients and caregivers know how to properly store it without violating the rules. Violations of those rules should be handled by DHHS, not law enforcement, he said.

“We’re seeing rule violations turn into felonies in the state,” Bishop said. “That’s dangerous. How can a patient who has a legal right to grow be charged with illegal cultivation?”

Randy Hayes said the situation has been stressful for his family, both because of the criminal charges and because they cannot afford to buy medical marijuana from dispensaries. He said they hope to grow their own plants next season and will continue to push to clarify the medical marijuana regulations, regardless of the outcome of their cases.

“Out of all this madness, I want to see clarity for the patients and caregivers in the state of Maine,” he said. “There’s a rulebook that everybody goes by, but the gray areas are not a good thing.”