Man of the Year: Marvin Chavez

In the eyes of the law, Marvin Chavez is a convicted felon. In the words of the man who busted him, now-retired Orange County Deputy District Attorney Carl Armbrust, Chavez is a "street drug dealer" who ran a "sophisticated drug operation" and "hid behind the law."

Chavez's crime was providing marijuana to terminally ill and disabled Orange County residents. And unlike the police and prosecutors whose efforts over the past 12 months led to his conviction last month on three marijuana-related felony charges, Chavez is anything but sophisticated. A straight-forward man by nature, the 42-year-old Santa Ana resident's chief crime was that he believed in the goodwill of the law-enforcement community and seriously misunderstood the legal complexities of Proposition 215, California's 1996 "Compassionate Use" initiative.

Prop. 215 passed in November 1996, when California voters overwhelmingly voted to allow terminally ill and disabled people to grow and smoke marijuana. As it turned out-and this is where people like Chavez get in trouble-the law doesn't spell out precisely how people too sick to grow marijuana for themselves can obtain a drug still illegal under state and federal law.

Chavez's second crime was that he lives in Orange County. Had he lived somewhere else-say Arcata or Oakland -he would still be a free man; instead, he faces the possibility of a several-year prison sentence.

Chavez grew up in the industrial, working-class barrio of Huntington Park. In 1972, when he was just 17, Chavez dropped out of high school. He begged his mother to sign paperwork allowing him to join the Marine Corps Reserve before his 18th birthday. She did, and Chavez served in the Corps for the next six years. In his spare time, he worked construction jobs and ultimately went into business for himself as a small contractor. He married and fathered two children, and then like millions of people who survived the 1980s, he developed a bad habit: cocaine. In 1991, Chavez was convicted of possession and sent to Tehachapi state prison for two years.

Determined to get his life on track, Chavez participated in a work-furlough program. While being transported with several other inmates to a work site, Chavez suffered a back injury when the van he was in struck a parked Jeep.

"From that day on, for the next five years, I was misdiagnosed," Chavez says. "They thought I was horseplaying because I was a convict."

Chavez was transferred to the state prison in Chino, where he worked in the dining room. Mopping the floor one day in 1992, Chavez slipped and injured his back once again. Unable to walk or stand straight, he was finally given some pills and a back brace before being released from prison the next year.

Free once again, Chavez found himself in constant pain. Worse, the medication he had been prescribed was turning him into a zombie. He didn't just feel no pain; he felt nothing at all and was incapable of even leaving the house. "The medication made me a hermit," he remembers. "I had mood swings. I didn't want to communicate with my sons. The side effects were too hard on me. I didn't want to be around people."

He went to a doctor who ran a blood test and made the startling discovery that Chavez was suffering the onset of a genetically inherited spinal condition that can sometimes be triggered by back trauma. The disease, anklyosing spondilitis, inevitably fuses the victim's bones until complete paralysis takes over. It's a process that is as excruciatingly painful as it sounds.

From visits to a public library and through appointments with local doctors, Chavez learned that many in the medical community saw marijuana as a safer, healthier painkiller and appetite-inducer than several of the medications he was already taking.

Shortly after Prop. 215 passed, Chavez, then living in Garden Grove, decided to set up a nonprofit cannabis co-op, the Orange County Cannabis Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group. His goal was to help make marijuana available to sick people on fixed incomes who were unable to grow it for themselves.

If Chavez was a drug dealer, he was an inept one. In late 1996, just weeks after Prop. 215's passage, he spoke with Garden Grove city officials, announcing his intention to open the co-op. He pleaded fruitlessly with the city elders for permission to set up an office somewhere in the city and wrote letters to Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates expressing his hope that OC law enforcement would work with him to ensure that the co-op would remain on the good side of the law. He religiously advertised his efforts in the local media, expanding on his vision with any reporter who would listen.

The press interviews, the City Hall speechifying, the letters: it was an odd campaign for someone allegedly trying to run a criminal drug operation. But that's exactly what authorities said Chavez was doing when they arrested him in January 1998.

Officials say they first discovered Chavez's criminal activities in late 1997, when police busted former San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy David Herrick in a hotel room with several baggies of marijuana marked "Not for Sale. For Medical Purposes Only." Herrick admitted he was a member of Chavez's co-op and allegedly told the cops he worked for 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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