The Perils of Prop. 215 

The Perils of Prop. 215 
Posted by CN Staff on April 12, 2003 at 11:59:12 PT
By Josh Indar
Source: Chico News & Review
Maybe Dinah Coffman shouldn't have gotten sick. Or maybe she should have continued to take the drugs that she says made her feel even worse. Or maybe she should have moved to Canada. But Coffman didn't do any of those things. A medicinal-marijuana user who once grew and processed the drug at her Chico home, Coffman has been raided, robbed and had her kids placed in foster care for a while, all because she uses a drug that California voters made legal for medicinal use almost seven years ago. 
Coffman, 43, a mother of five and grandmother of one, has been using marijuana with a doctor's recommendation for five years to help her deal with a variety of serious ailments. Last September, a group of men scaled her backyard fence and attempted to steal 10 plants she was growing there, a phenomenon that is becoming a dangerous problem for medicinal users across the state. When she called police to report the attempted theft, she said officers who responded were less than sympathetic. Instead of finding the culprits, she said, police took all of the plants the thieves missed. "Here, I'm strong-arm robbed in my own yard, then the police come out and don't do anything about it," she complained. "They wouldn't take a statement; they just confiscated the plants and left." Police dispute Coffman's version of events, saying they took the plants because Coffman was growing more than she was allowed to under Butte County's strict six-plants, one-cured-pound-per-patient guidelines. But Coffman cites a decision by the California Supreme Court--the Mower decision--that she says lets her grow as many as 31 plants. Besides, she maintains, she was also growing for her daughter, who smokes for stress disorders and a bone disease. "Who the hell is the real terrorist here?" she asked. "All I want is to be left alone to take my medicine. I unfortunately can't take the prescription drugs because they don't work. Cannabis just happens to be the best medicine for me." Coffman is far from alone. California is currently home to an estimated 10,000-20,000 people who identify themselves as medicinal-marijuana users. In some counties, they can legally and safely grow their own medicine. In other counties, they can buy it at a dispensary. But due to the purposefully vague way the law is written, there are great discrepancies in how the law is enforced across the state. Even worse, the federal government is openly hostile to medicinal-marijuana laws, especially in California. Last year, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) raided several growers and dispensaries that seemed to be operating legally under California law, taking thousands of pounds of marijuana but declining to make any arrests. The busts angered many Californians and prompted California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to criticize the DEA raids, calling them "punitive expeditions ... targeting the state's seriously ill residents." These kinds of conflicts have become part of our state's political landscape and have led some to argue that California's experiment in allowing the medicinal use of marijuana has been an abject failure. Since voters passed Proposition 215, officially known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, there have been abuses of the law on both sides. Recreational users have tried to claim they are patients. Profiteering dealers have claimed to be caregivers. Sick people have been arrested and harassed. Police on the beat are confused and exasperated. Juries are kept in the dark. Marijuana arrests may have actually increased, and Governor Gray Davis doesn't seem inclined to do anything about it. On the other hand, there are those who argue that Proposition 215 has been a fantastic success, in that it has allowed people with a doctor's recommendation to possess small amounts of marijuana without fear of being arrested and has led to the adoption of similar laws in eight other states. Teen pot use has actually declined in California since 1996. AIDS and cancer patients are finding relief from their symptoms without having to seek the help of black-market drug dealers, and cannabis dispensaries in some parts of California are free to grow and dispense marijuana right out in the open, despite federal opposition. While many in law enforcement would probably like to see all marijuana users in jail, most marijuana users, medicinal or otherwise, would ultimately like pot to be legalized. With prisons and courts already bulging at the seams and lawsuits flying in every direction, both sides say something has to give. What the breakthrough will be, no one really knows, but, spurred on by the federal government's recent crackdowns, a movement is growing across Northern California that hopes to blow the lid off federal marijuana prohibition. On the surface, Butte County may seem like an unlikely place for a turnaround to occur in the stalemate between state and federal pot laws. But there have been numerous shots fired on both sides of the drug war from this conservative and largely rural county. One of the first high-profile busts of a California marijuana grower who claimed a medical defense happened here, when Bryan James Epis was arrested for conspiring to grow more than 1,000 plants at his home near Chico High School. Federal agents arrested Epis, now 35, in June 1997. Prosecutors initially offered Epis, who claims to have been trying to start Butte County's first medical-marijuana dispensary, a deal that would have resulted in a sentence of four years. But, believing that the court would allow him to use Prop. 215 as a defense, he refused to plead guilty to charges that he was growing for profit. That decision could have cost Epis six years of freedom. "I should have taken the deal," Epis repeatedly told a News & Review reporter by phone a few days after his conviction. "I did the controversial thing in the wrong county." Epis was given the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison by U.S. District Court Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who ruled that no mention of medical marijuana could be made during the trial, effectively killing Epis' main defense. Epis' September 2002 trial brought about 500 supporters to Sacramento to protest the federal government's stance against medical marijuana and made national news. Although law enforcement officials still claim Epis was using Prop. 215 to cover his for-profit growing operation, his supporters say he was only trying to help sick people. His arrest and subsequent conviction seem to have destroyed any hopes local patients may have had for a cannabis dispensary in Butte County. "People are scared to death." said Coffman, who also directs the Butte Alliance for Medical Marijuana. "We need a sanctuary. I get calls from all over, and I have to tell these people to go to a dispensary all the way in San Francisco. Some of these people are really sick." Not all of Butte County's medical-marijuana cases have had such drastic results. Butte County judges have made several decisions since 1996 upholding the rights of medical users to cultivate and possess small amounts of marijuana, and a few defendants have been acquitted of charges in jury trials. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey has friends and enemies on both sides of the medical-marijuana debate. In a recent article in the internationally distributed pot magazine Cannabis Culture, Ramsey was hailed simultaneously as being both "much-feared" and an "unlikely hero" for stands he's taken in the med-pot war. The article, written by a former CN&R contributing writer who was released from marijuana possession charges in Butte County on a medical defense, applauds Ramsey for an incident in which he faced off against DEA agents who were harassing an Oroville medical-marijuana user. But when the article came out, the News & Review received several calls from local med-pot advocates who wanted it made clear that Ramsey is no hero to them. When asked about the article, which featured a blue-tinted photo of the five-term D.A. directly facing advertisements for grow-your-own mushroom kits and a home-based hemp business, Ramsey laughed and briefly reflected on "the deliciousness of irony." No friend of marijuana legalization, Ramsey said it has been difficult to straddle the line between enforcing the law and protecting patients' rights. The situation is made even stickier by the conflict between federal and state law. "In California we've got Proposition 215, and I'm going to uphold Proposition 215. I don't enforce federal law," he said. At the same time, he said, law enforcement needs to be able to distinguish between people who are really sick and people who just want to get high. "For some folks, marijuana is a lifestyle. Basically, the charge for law enforcement is to distinguish between those I call 'the true believers,' who have no problem with the six-plant guidelines, and the legalization folks, who seem to think there shouldn't be any limits on how many plants they can grow." Ramsey said he came up with the six-plant limit by figuring out about how much can be produced per crop. By his reckoning, six plants can yield about a pound of processed marijuana. "It's a huge amount in our minds," he said. "Basically, a patient could smoke a joint an hour, 10 hours a day, 365 days a year." The problem with setting guidelines, say med-pot advocates, is that different patients have different needs, which should be determined by doctors, not prosecutors. Ramsey's guidelines also don't offer any breaks to patients who, for whatever reason, are unable to grow their own medicine. "I've seen some patients grow six plants and barely get an ounce," said Coffman, adding that some patients, particularly AIDS sufferers, might smoke as much as 8 grams a day, almost two times more than would be allowed under Ramsey's guidelines. Other counties have placed their limits much higher and consulted with boards of supervisors in setting those limits. Sonoma, for instance, allows 100 square feet of garden space, or 99 plants and three pounds of processed marijuana, per patient. Of course, the federal limit on marijuana plants is zero, medical or not. Diane Monson found that out when her Oroville home was raided by DEA agents, who found her six-plant garden when they came to check out a lead in an unrelated cultivation case. When the agents began ripping up Monson's garden, Ramsey called the agents' supervisor and demanded they respect both his guidelines and his jurisdiction by leaving Monson's plants alone. The agents took the plants anyway but made no arrests. Monson is currently suing the Department of Justice over the incident, and Ramsey has curtailed joint operations with the DEA. Incidents like these have prompted one local attorney--who happens to be a frequent opponent of Ramsey--to try to figure out what can be done about the law itself. Dale Rasmussen, a Chico attorney who specializes in defending medical-marijuana patients and caregivers, has been working on a revision of Prop. 215 that he thinks might clear up some of its ambiguities. Rasmussen, who last year amazed insiders by pulling in 41 percent of the vote when he ran on a pro-medical-marijuana platform for district attorney against the incumbent Ramsey, said he is only interested in reworking the legislation, not in the tedious political process of getting it on the ballot. "My feeling is that I'm just going to put it out to the public and make sure it gets distributed. I don't personally want to go through all that politicking," he said. It would take signatures from around 1 million Californians to put forward an initiative to change the law, an expensive and time-consuming task that nobody seems willing to take on. What Rasmussen proposes is softening the penalties on small-scale cultivation, possibly raising the penalties for large-scale black-market grows, and holding law enforcement to a higher standard when it comes to determining whether suspects have a medical need. Cannabis dispensaries, in his opinion, will always be illegal if they are making outright sales. "There's sort of a lack of political reality among legalization advocates," Rasmussen said. "One of the drawbacks of the current law is that it kind of makes an outline of what California voters want to see happen with medical marijuana ... but it doesn't set out steps on how it's going to happen." Rasmussen said he doesn't favor outright legalization. In rewriting Prop. 215, he is making an attempt to rectify the will of the voters with the realities and legalities of law enforcement. "I'm against legalization. I don't think the American people are receptive to that," he said. "But it doesn't have to be legalized. It can be trivialized to the point where ... it could be like making an illegal U-turn. A smart person just wouldn't do it, especially in front of a cop." Rasmussen's rewrite should be ready for publication in a few weeks, but, as he says, where it goes from there is up to someone else. While Rasmussen and others try to come up with ways to change or replace the law, some med-pot advocates are working overtime trying figure out how to make the current law work--or, as some would put it, how to get around the law. In Upper Lake, Calif., one grower is taking his personal quest for legalization all the way, challenging not just the state's authority to bust medical-pot users, but also the federal government's authority to bust any pot users. Charles "Eddy" Lepp was the first high-profile target of last year's DEA pot harvest raids. A feisty Vietnam veteran and longtime legalization activist, Lepp was never charged with any crime in connection to that raid, though he says his phone is still tapped. But Lepp, who uses marijuana to cope with a disability, is not the kind of guy to be satisfied with simply staying out of jail. He is currently demanding through the federal court system that the DEA return to him its entire haul--some 3,600 pounds of high-grade marijuana, worth almost $23 million on the street. He also makes the audacious claim that the law the DEA is currently using to put marijuana users in jail was never properly written into law books, making it invalid. His federal case hasn't been heard yet, but Lepp has had success working through state laws. On the day a CN&R reporter went out to visit Lepp, he received an unexpected visit from a pair of California highway patrolmen. When asked if they were there to bust Lepp, a silver-haired officer, marveling at the view among hundreds of immature marijuana plants, chuckled and replied, "Heck no. It's too nice of a day for that." Instead, the officers had come to return Lepp's property--about an ounce of medicinal marijuana that had been confiscated in a traffic stop. Once the patrolmen had driven off, Lepp went inside to roll a "victory joint" and discuss the finer points of marijuana prohibition. As he sees it, the only thing wrong with Prop. 215 is that it hasn't yet been fully implemented. "The state dropped the baton on 215," he said. "Then the feds lit the fucking baton on fire. But they can't beat the law--it's their law," he said. "That's how I'll beat the federal government." In addition to growing his own personal garden on his 10-acre property, Lepp has begun to rent out 10-foot-by-10-foot plots to other medical-marijuana users who are unable to grow their own medicine. In exchange for an estimated $1,800 annual donation to Lepp's church--the multi-denominational Chapel of Cannabis and Rastafari, of which Lepp is the minister--patients are set up to grow about five pounds of premium-grade marijuana. While some have criticized the arrangement as profiteering, Lepp said his critics simply haven't done the math. "I can't make it any cheaper than that," he said. "The truth is we'll barely break even on the people who pay for plots. Right now they're paying $4,000 to $6,000 a pound, and I'm dropping the price to $500 overnight. I'd say that's extremely generous." Lepp said he has given away as much as 500 pounds of marijuana annually to sick people since Prop. 215 was voted in. As for the legality of his plot rentals, he said, "What would be illegal about it? Every patient I do this for is legally able to grow their own plants under Proposition 215. I'm trying to help police as much as patients, because instead of having 30 or 40 people all over town growing the stuff, I've got it all out here in one place. That's 30 or 40 possible crime scenes they don't have to keep an eye on." Since Lepp requires that patients show up to tend their own plants, he figures he's not so much growing it for them as providing a safe and secure place for their own gardens. For Lepp, the marijuana issue is one that cuts to the heart of American politics. A straw-hatted iconoclast with a Jeffersonian philosophy, he sees federal prohibition of marijuana as an attack on the Constitution, a challenge to the rights of individuals and an affront to his spirituality. "Regardless of what anyone thinks, I was called to be a ganja man," he said. "I think it is my job to tell people about the beauty of this plant. This bullshit about us marijuana growers financing Osama bin Laden--give me a fucking break." Listening to guys like Lepp, one gets the impression that marijuana is only one aspect of a newly emerging political consciousness that has yet to gain hold with mainstream Californians. With opinions on everything from states rights to foreign policy, it is clear that the movers and shakers of the California marijuana movement have much more on their minds than righteous buds. Dennis Peron, who wrote California's medical-pot law, is neither a doctor nor a lawyer, and though he did run for governor, most people don't see him as much of a politician. Instead, he is a self-described "pot-smoking gay guy" who watched his lover die of AIDS in 1990. After seeing the positive effects that smoking cannabis had on his terminally ill partner, Peron, a liberal Republican and Air Force veteran of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, set out on a quest to make the drug legal, at least for those with chronic illnesses. Peron said recently that he doesn't see anything wrong with the law, only with the state's approach to enforcing it. "Proposition 215 is still the law of the land, and it will always be the law in California," he said. "Prop. 215 was hope--hope that we could change the laws, that we could change our society. Is it a perfect law? No. Is it hope? Yes." In interviews given while campaigning for the initiative, Peron denied the law was a Trojan horse for all-out legalization. Now, though, he freely admits, "I think all use is medical. "Marijuana is just a metaphor," he said. "People have given up to the government what they can do themselves. We rely on the government to solve our problems. Two-fifteen was the beginning of a peaceful revolution. I truly believe that some day marijuana is going to be legal and marijuana is going to make a better world." Even some of those who have been caught in the middle of the debate remain supportive of the law, no matter what consequences they may be enduring for it. Ed Rosenthal, a widely known marijuana writer, grower and legalization activist, was recently convicted in federal court for growing marijuana on behalf of Oakland's city-sanctioned cannabis dispensary. Although Rosenthal was openly and obviously growing cannabis for sick people under the porous protection of Prop. 215, the judge at Rosenthal's federal trial forbade any mention of medicinal marijuana. Believing he was a large-scale drug dealer, a jury found him guilty of cultivation for sale. After the trial, some members of the jury reacted with horror and shame when they found out they had convicted a dispensary grower. One juror told the San Francisco Chronicle that convicting Rosenthal was the most horrible mistake she had ever made. "I feel like we were sheep. We were manipulated," she said. Rosenthal himself, facing five to 20 years in federal prison, said he still believes in Prop. 215. "I think if you read it, it's pretty clear," he said. "I think the problem is enforcement. But county by county, governments are coming to accept the law." He also advocates for outright legalization and applauds 215 not just for what it has done for the sick, but also for driving a wedge into marijuana prohibition. Rosenthal believes prohibition is driven by the economic demands of law enforcement and correctional officers' groups, who depend on the income they receive from arresting and jailing marijuana users. "This was the first step toward demolishing marijuana laws," he said. "If regulations are more harmful to the individual and to society than the behavior they're trying to regulate, then the laws should be changed." Congressional oversight: The main reason the feds have such a problem with medical marijuana is its classification under the 1970 Controlled Substance Act, which breaks drugs into categories based on their accepted use. Marijuana is classified as a "Schedule I" drug, meaning that, in the government's eyes, it has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in the United States. Schedule I classification, however, ignores the fact that, prior to its prohibition in 1937, cannabis had been used as medicine for centuries, marketed in tinctures, salves and solutions by companies--such as Squibb and Parke-Davis--that would one day become giants in the pharmaceutical industry. Numerous attempts to reschedule marijuana have failed. Note: Seven years after voters approved medical pot use, patients still face risks in procuring their medicine.Source: Chico News & Review, The (CA)Author: Josh Indar Published: April 10, 2003 Copyright: 2003 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.Website: chicoletters newsreview.comRelated Articles & Web Site:Ed Rosenthal's Pictures & Articles Would Allow Medical Defense in Trials Allows Medical Marijuana Defense
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Comment #3 posted by motavation on September 12, 2003 at 03:22:21 PT:
We Will WIN! WE Did, now we must HELP!
FIRST, lets all say thanks to those in the article..if only others would stand to fight with them! If you are in a local California community and want to help we could use any help! First connecting the local activist, caregivers, and fighters! Brian/CHICO...we are still here, now more and more are fighting for you and others! I spoke with your family;)
Although some under the map and some above we are thinking of everyone who was POW's of the Drug war.Anyone heard about the missing activist in humbdolt "chris"?High EDDY, HIGH ED! You know of me, although you both are busy!One time we will all have a California Medical Festival:)We are winning California, you have rights! THE RIGHT TO MEDICAL MARIJUANA FOR AN ILLNESS:) LET ALONE THERE IS BAY AREA CLUBS IF YOU DON'T HAVE PATIENTS AND FRIENDS TO HELP! ANY PATIENTS,CAREGIVERS OR OTHER FRIENDS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA HELP ME! WE MUST WORK TOGETHER. IM IN CALIFORNIA AND SO FAR THE PCS NETWORK AND CCN ARE GROWING:) FROM CHICO,RENO,TAHOE,SACRAMENTO,ELK GROVE,STOCKTON,MODESTO,FRESNO,BERKLEY,BAKERSFIELD,SF,HUMBOLDT, AND MORE:) CONTACT ME FOR INFO. Also look at the forum I found on a link but local!
California Cannabis Community
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Comment #2 posted by palmspringsbum on April 13, 2003 at 12:25:19 PT:
a truly fine article
What so impressed me about this article is that it highlights the plight of the -average- med-patient - you know, the ones no-one's ever heard of with no legal fund or organization backing them...
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Comment #1 posted by FoM on April 12, 2003 at 12:00:46 PT
Pictures in Above Article
Here's the direct link to the above article. There are a few pictures you might want to see.
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