Man of the Year: Marvin Chavez

It was in the first week of January 1998 at Herrick's trial in the Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana that Chavez met the man who would ultimately make this a year he'll never forget: Armbrust. Armbrust approached Chavez and asked him if he had received his subpoena to appear at Herrick's trial. Chavez said yes and introduced himself. The two shook hands. The rest is history.

What follows is only a brief summary of the major events of Chavez's life, culled from the pages of the OC Weekly over the past 12 months:

On Jan. 14, just days after Chavez shook hands with Armbrust, police arrested Chavez and charged him with eight felony counts of selling marijuana. After a few days in county jail (during which time he was denied access to his medicine), a judge released Chavez with the admonition that he stop providing marijuana to members of his co-op. At the time, Chavez promised to do that. But when a patient Chavez had been helping-and who also had been subpoenaed by Armbrust to appear at Herrick's trial-died of cancer, Chavez had had enough of being told what to do.

Police arrested Chavez again, along with OC cannabis co-op co-founder Jack Schacter, on April 9. They charged the pair with several more counts of selling marijuana to sick members of the co-op. The rationale: since money sometimes changed hands (because Chavez and Schacter accepted $20 donations to keep their co-op going), it was illegal.

Besides, police said, at least two of the people Chavez had provided with marijuana weren't even sick, although they did have doctors' notes saying they were. They were undercover cops equipped with a forged doctor's note.

"I wasn't surprised at all that I was arrested," said Chavez. "I was just surprised at how long it took for them to do it and how it actually happened."

On July 17, Herrick, who was not permitted to use Prop. 215 as a defense, was sentenced to spend four years in prison. A week later, Armbrust offered Chavez five years' probation-and no jail time-in return for a renewed promise that he would ignore his conscience and stop distributing marijuana to members of his organization. Chavez refused.

In November, voters in four other U.S. states and the District of Columbia passed initiatives similar to Prop. 215. Meanwhile, Chavez's case went to trial, and he was convicted of three felony counts of selling marijuana and one count of sending it through the mail to a sick co-op member in Chino. A victorious Armbrust left the courtroom smiling; it was his last day in office, and he had gotten his man after all.

But the jury's verdict was mixed-and apparently shaped by Prop. 215. Although it convicted Chavez of three felony charges, the jury handed him misdemeanor convictions on five remaining charges where it believed he was guilty only of giving away marijuana to sick people, still a violation of state law, but consistent with the intent of Prop. 215.

Chavez faces one more hurdle in the new year: his Jan. 29, 1999, sentencing hearing. Chavez says that if he is sent to prison, he'll campaign to force authorities to allow him to smoke his medicine and will organize other disabled or chronically ill patients behind bars to stand up for their rights under the law.

By then, of course, the men who put Chavez behind bars will be gone from public life: Armbrust; Armbrust's boss, outgoing District Attorney Mike Capizzi; and Sheriff Brad Gates, who campaigned vociferously against Prop. 215.

Also out of the picture will be state Attorney General Dan Lungren, who directed the crackdown on cannabis clubs throughout the state from his Sacramento office. He'll be replaced by the state Legislature's Bill Lockyer, whose sister and mother died of leukemia. Lockyer voted for Prop. 215 and followed Chavez's prosecution closely in the media.

Regardless of what happens to Chavez on Jan. 29-and we wish him the best-1999 is shaping up as a much different year where Prop. 215 is concerned. It's too bad that Chavez didn't wait for elected leaders to catch up to voters before he risked his own liberty. Now, the political establishment prosecutes him as a common criminal; had he waited, he might have been celebrated as a hero. But to the hundreds of people in Orange County whose lives have been made more endurable because of the sympathy and bravery of Marvin Chavez, there's no waiting. He's already a hero.

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