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Medical marijuana sting operation: Aurora chief of police Dan Oates says it wasn't political

Last week, the Aurora Police Department busted Dr. Manuel Aquino-Villaman for allegedly writing medical marijuana recommendations to two undercover police officers without examining them. Among other things, he's been charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

Should this sting operation be viewed in the context of Aurora's reputation as an anti-MMJ-biz community? APD police chief Dan Oates says no, stressing, "I'm not interested in the politics of this."

Aurora instituted a moratorium on medical marijuana businesses early on, and in May, its city council voted to put a ban of dispensaries and the like on the November ballot. As such, the community is likely to be among the fall's biggest electoral battlegrounds over medical marijuana.

Even so, Oates says, "I have no comment on whether Aurora is medical-marijuana unfriendly. Aurora's made the choices that many communities in Colorado have made as we weave our way through this issue."

He adds that "the arrest of this doctor is irrelevant to where Aurora is on medical marijuana. The arrest has nothing to do with that."

Oates shoots down suggestions that his department set out to target doctors as a way of intimidating anyone in the medical community who might consider making an MMJ recommendation. "We're not on a crusade against doctors who recommend medical marijuana," he says. "I see this as an isolated incident of an allegation that a doctor was committing criminal acts, and we investigated it."

As Oates notes, "our department keeps running into people in possession of marijuana. As you know, the world has changed here in Aurora, and in Colorado. And this doctor's name kept coming up as someone who was issuing recommendations under circumstances we doubted."

Hence, the undercover operation, which is described in an APD press release on view below as a "five-month investigation." In conversation, though, Oates downplays the amount of time and manpower deployed to look into the doctor's actions.

"All government decisions are about balancing the use of resources," he points out, "and this was a relatively easy investigation. We heard that the doctor was issuing a lot of these recommendations from many people we were running into, and it was a relatively simple thing to send an undercover officer in there for four or five minutes -- and the guy gave him a recommendation without an examination. And he did this twice, with two different undercovers. So it wasn't a heavy lift or a big expenditure of police resources."

The APD was cautious when it came time to make an arrest. "In the current environment, there's so many questions about the law," Oates says. "I think it's a challenge for all law enforcement in Colorado right now. It's extremely difficult for law enforcement to navigate through what is criminal and what is not, what evidence to gather and what to leave behind -- all of these issues."

With that in mind, Oates continues, "we consulted with the Arapahoe County DA's office for every step of this, and we decided very carefully on the charges. We didn't do it in a vacuum. We consulted with the prosecutor who'd have to prosecute the charges, and we didn't make a summary arrest. We got an arrest warrant, because we wanted to know in advance that the prosecutor would support the charges."

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This approach wasn't taken for because APD representatives were afraid of looking bad in the press for having a DA turn thumbs-down on a high-profile arrest.

"I'm not particularly concerned about attention from the media," Oates says. "No police chief in the state wants to be in the position of making an arrest and then the DA doesn't support the case. The key is acting responsibly before we make an arrest, and that's what we did."

Page down to read the APD release about the doctor's arrest:

Arrest Made in Connection with Medical Marijuana Investigation

Aurora, Colo. -- Aurora Police arrested a doctor on Thursday, July 8, 2010, in connection with a five-month investigation by undercover officers into illegal marijuana distribution.

The doctor came to the attention of the Aurora Police when sources indicated that he may be writing false "medical marijuana" recommendations to persons who were not ill. He has been charged with Attempting to Influence a Public Servant and with Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana.

Narcotics Unit investigators arrested 69-year-old Manuel Aquino-Villaman, who is licensed in Colorado to practice medicine, after he signed a Medical Marijuana Physician's Certification for two individual "patients," clearing the way for each to legally purchase marijuana. Aquino-Villaman was arrested Thursday afternoon at his medical practice, which is located at 3033 S. Parker Road in Aurora. He was transported to the Aurora Detention Center and was held for $6,000 bond.

"This is an unfortunate case of a doctor deliberately using the façade of 'medical marijuana' to help distribute large amounts of marijuana illegally," said Police Chief Daniel J. Oates.

Aurora narcotics officers became aware of Dr. Aquino-Villaman when they began encountering a disproportionate number of "patients" in possession of recommendations by the doctor claiming they had a need for medical marijuana. Undercover officers visited the doctor, who gave each of them a recommendation for marijuana without physically examining the officers and without any evidence that the undercovers were ill in any way.

The doctor signed a Medical Marijuana Physician's Certification that stated that each undercover officer was complaining of severe pain and was therefore eligible under Colorado law to legally obtain medical marijuana. The doctor spent just minutes with the officers and charged them $125 for the consultation and the medical marijuana recommendation.

The Aurora Police Department has worked closely with the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office on this case. Dr. Aquino-Villaman is currently free on bond.

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