Michigan Cop Suicides Over Medical Marijuana Butter Conviction

11/24/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

In Kent County, Michigan, 49-year-old Tim Bernhardt is dead by his own hand. The 22-year veteran police officer was forced to plead guilty to felony charges of maintaining a drug house, ending his law enforcement career and causing his suicide.

The tragic story begins with a tip from the US Postal Service that Timothy and Alyssa Scherzer were receiving marijuana through the mail. That led the Kent Area Narcotics Enforcement Team (KANET) to secure a search warrant to raid the Scherzer's home back in March of this year. KANET found only 31 plants, a kilogram of marijuana, and 170 grams of marijuana butter.

But the Scherzers were registered medical marijuana program caregivers in Michigan, and Timothy Scherzer was a patient as well. Timothy was very forthcoming with police that they had been receiving and delivering pounds of marijuana butter to their registered patients for over two-and-a-half years. Those patients included corrections officers Deputy Michael Frederick, Deputy Todd VanDoorne, Sergeant Tim Bernhardt, and Christine Tennant, the wife of Deputy Brian Tennant.

According to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, patients may possess up to two and one-half ounces of usable marijuana and twelve marijuana plants kept in an enclosed, locked facility. If you're wondering how two caregivers with at least four patients could get into such trouble in a state where medical marijuana passed by 63 percent, get ready for the tragic technicality that led a veteran cop to kill himself.

In July 2013, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that marijuana edibles aren't "usable marihuana", so a patient or caregiver caught with too much of it is just another marijuana felon. The 1978 Michigan Public Health Code definition of "marihuana" (Michigan law uses the archaic spelling) includes "the resin extracted from any part of the plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant or its seeds or resin," but the 2008 Michigan Medical Marihuana Act set a narrower definition of "usable marihuana" as "the dried leaves and flowers of the marihuana plant, and any mixture or preparation thereof." Since marijuana butter is a preparation made by seeping out the THC resin from marijuana, it is criminal "marihuana", and since marijuana butter doesn't contain any dried leaves or flowers, it is not "usable marihuana" that medical marijuana patients may legally possess.

Let's recap. Michigan passes medical marijuana in 2008. The legality of marijuana edibles is questionable then, but no authority has deemed them illegal. The Scherzers begin acting as caregivers for these registered patients around late 2011, supplying them with cannabis butter. By 2013, the Court of Appeals rules cannabis butter is contraband. In 2014, these caregivers and patients are arrested and among their charges are possession, delivery, and manufacture of marijuana, conspiracy to possess, deliver, and manufacture marijuana, and maintaining a drug house.

Everyone charged with these felonies cooperates, describing to prosecutors their mistaken belief that they were obeying the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act. Even the Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma says, "We never had any suspicions of trafficking by these four officers or any of these people involved," adding that there is no indication that marijuana was provided to inmates or other officers. The lawyers for the officers charged explain that the whole operation was completely medical.

If this story hasn't infuriated you enough, consider this. In December 2013, in reaction to the Court of Appeals ruling that marijuana butter can't be medical marijuana, the Michigan House voted 100-9 to expand the definition of "usable marihuana" to include preparations made with resin, such as marijuana butter. But that bill's passage happened on the last day of the session, so it couldn't be taken up by the Senate until the 2014 session. As of this writing, that bill hasn't advanced in the Senate.

In April, prosecutors offered a plea deal to the officers. After twenty years or more of service each they would resign their jobs, testify against the others, and waive any claims under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. If they quit, rejected medical marijuana protection, and became snitches, they could plead guilty to just the charges of maintaining a drug house -- a statute originally conceived to go after crack houses, meth labs, commercial home grows, not caregivers cooking cannabis butter for medical patients.

In June, two of the officers, Frederick and VanDoorne, rejected the plea bargains. At a hearing their lawyers argued that no warrants were issued to search these men's homes. Prosecution argued that the men let the police in and were cooperative. Defense argued that when you work for the police and your superiors show up, there is an implied threat to one's job that coerces them to cooperate.

But by October, the Scherzers took a deal to plead guilty to the drug house charges and Timothy, the patient, also pleaded guilty to a delivery charge. As part of the deal, they implicated the four officers who had been charged. The following week led to Deputy Tennant (who wasn't a patient but whose wife was) pleading guilty to the drug house charges and marijuana possession in exchange for his testimony against the other three officers. Tennant also was forced to quit his twenty-year police career. One week later, Sergeant Bernhardt, the man who has committed suicide, pleaded guilty to the drug house charges, quit his career, and agreed to testify against the remaining two officers. Everyone taking a plea will be sentenced in December, facing between two and four years in prison each, except, of course, for Sergeant Bernhardt.

Last Thursday, Timothy Scherzer apologized to the officers at his sentencing. "I offer my apologies to my patients for my misinterpretation of the law," he said. "I wish I hadn't caused this harm to them." Timothy received five years of probation and a $10,000 fine. His wife, Alyssa, got three years of probation and a $5,000 fine. On Sunday, Sergeant Bernhardt killed himself.

Still not mad enough? Consider this: the county seat of Kent County where these trials are being held is Grand Rapids, which approved marijuana decriminalization by a 60 percent vote. A Kent County judge upheld the decrim law in July 2013, the same month the Court of Appeals was making marijuana butter illegal. The prosecutor there, William Forsyth, the same one who went after these medical users over marijuana butter, is appealing the decision to the Court of Appeals. As his Assistant Prosecutor Tim McMorrow explained, "I don't think this case is about voters' rights. The voters do not have a right to adopt anything they want," he said. "Something doesn't become valid because the voters voted for it."

Sixty-three percent of the state's voters approved medical marijuana, a 100-9 vote of the state House says marijuana butter is medical marijuana, and sixty percent of the city's voters approved decriminalization, yet the Kent County prosecutor saw fit to destroy the careers of four police veterans for their medical use of marijuana butter. The death of Sergeant Tim Bernhardt is on William Forsyth's hands.