Criminal Prosecution

Body count grows in war on medical marijuana

Like the enigmatic psycho killer in the penultimate act of a hackneyed horror flick-the maniac who mysteriously returns to life as soon as the hero turns his back-Orange County's war on medical marijuana just won't die. It dispatched its latest victim with stunning severity on Jan. 29. To perform the honors, distinguished former county prosecutor Carl Armbrust took a break from his retirement to attend the sentencing of Marvin Chavez, the medical-marijuana activist convicted last November of selling marijuana to undercover cops.That afternoon, Judge Thomas J. Borris sentenced Chavez to six years in jail, a punishment that stemmed from an undercover operation directed by Armbrust's anti-narcotics task force against Chavez's Orange County Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group. As he exited Orange County's West Municipal courtroom in handcuffs, Chavez looked to his defense attorney, Jim Silva, and said forgivingly, "That's all right." Silva couldn't help but think of the old cliche about Orange County that ought to be reserved for history books and not newspaper articles: "Behind the Orange Curtain.""I wasn't sure what that phrase meant until today," said Silva, who lives in Venice, during a Jan. 29 interview. "Judge Borris' decision took me completely off-guard. It may change the whole political landscape. Marvin only provided marijuana to patients or to undercover cops pretending to be patients. But Judge Borris didn't even consider that as a mitigating factor in his sentencing."Almost as disturbing as Borris' sentence, Silva said, was the 30-page probation report used in Friday's hearing. Among other considerations, such as the two previous narcotics-related felonies on Chavez's record, the report noted, "Mr. Chavez says he would continue to travel around the state and 'educate' people about medical marijuana.""The report makes it abundantly clear they don't want Marvin to exercise his rights to free speech," concluded Silva. "Orange County is willing to use incarceration as a means to prevent Marvin from educating people about medical marijuana. That is exactly the kind of thing that Fifth Amendment [advocates] would find repugnant."Silva isn't alone in his feelings about the current state of justice in Orange County. In fact, many observers to the drama that unfolded toward the end of Chavez's high-profile trial found themselves struggling to comprehend the harshness of his prison sentence. On Jan. 31, The Orange County Register, which had previously both criticized and praised Borris for the fairness of his courtroom rulings, lambasted Chavez's sentence as "near criminal." "This is the battleground," declared Mike Vardoulis, vice president of the OC Hemp Council. "Orange County, for whatever reason, wants to display the least amount of sympathy to medical marijuana users. It's open season." Vardoulis claimed that sending activists like Chavez to jail is part of a silent conspiracy by government officials to cover up the medicinal benefits of cannabis. "It's gotten pretty obvious," said Vardoulis. "So many people have been arrested, sent to jail, and are being denied access to their medication."Chavez isn't the only casualty of California's ongoing war on medical marijuana-just the latest. On Jan. 19, just 10 days before Chavez was sent to prison, police in northern California arrested Steve Kubby, who last year ran unsuccessfully for California governor on the Libertarian Party ticket. Arrested at their home near Lake Tahoe, both Kubby and his wife were charged with cultivation and possession of marijuana plants, despite the fact that Kubby, one of the original authors of Proposition 215, carries a doctor's note permitting him to grow and smoke the drug.Last year, David Herrick, a former San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy, received a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of several of the same charges that later were used by OC prosecutors against Chavez. Herrick, who suffers from a back injury, is now being held at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, where he is reportedly being denied access to his medication. He is also being denied visits-or interviews-from reporters. Herrick's appeal is scheduled to begin next month.Meanwhile, the wheels of Orange County justice grind on. Of the three individuals who risked their liberty to help sick Californians obtain their legal medicine, two are now behind bars. On Feb. 3 the trial of the third and final founding member of Orange County's now-defunct Patient-Doctor-Nurse-Support-Group, Jack Schachter, began at the West Municipal Court in Westminster. Like that of Marvin Chavez, Schachter's case stems from Armbrust's undercover operation, which relied on police officers posing as sick patients with doctors' notes to trick Chavez into "dealing" baggies of marijuana marked "Not for Sale-For Medicinal Use Only." If convicted, Schachter faces a maximum sentence of several years in a state penitentiary.

 
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