Post-Prop. 215 Stress Disorder

The sad fate of Orange Countys medical-marijuana movement

Photo by Jack GouldLarry Mollat has a big idea. A self-described "reformed drug smuggler" and "ex-con," Mollat says he's "an outlaw who's come in from the cold"—so far into the warmth that he wants to teach the county Board of Supervisors to grow pot.

It's a compelling prospect: the Colorado transplant with long, graying hair describing for the suits on the Board of Supervisors a system he promises can produce four ounces of marijuana out of one plant after stems and seeds have been discarded. Under Mollat's plan, all that pot would bud under the watchful eyes of county officials; flow into a local cannabis buyers' club; and from there, get into the hands of the blind, the halt and the lame: medical-marijuana users qualified under 1996's Proposition 215.

"I want to grow for a cannabis buyers' club," he exclaimed at a recent Valentine's Day mixer hosted by the Orange County Hemp Council. "I want to go to the

county of Orange and say, 'If you want control over this [process], step up now and get on the same wavelength as northern California.'"

But Mollat has a hard sell ahead of him. Even among friendlies—like this tiny gathering at Anaheim's AAA Electra Gallery—support for the plan was anemic. And with good reason. They are all that survives of a once high-profile movement to provide free cannabis to terminally ill people throughout Orange County.

Five years ago, that movement seemed unstoppable. But 1996's election victory for Prop. 215 turned out to be the high point. Since then, county law-enforcement officials have made good on their promise to eviscerate the law, hounding the movement's leaders and rank-and-file members into submission and sometimes prison.

Today, the group is limited pretty much to a membership of beleaguered Hemp Council activists, whose primary goal is to promote the hemp plant's myriad industrial applications, and a $200 operating budget.

"It's hard to get people motivated these days," said Debi Grand, the Hemp Council's secretary. "Everybody's so busy with their lives and people are too afraid of getting involved because they'll be harassed by the police."

There's good reason for fear. Two of the 15 people who made it to the group's sparsely attended meeting were Marvin Chavez and David Lee Herrick, co-founders of the Orange County Cannabis Co-op. Shortly after Prop. 215's passage, both Chavez and Herrick were arrested and convicted of selling marijuana to terminally ill co-cop members in Orange County. In 1999, Herrick's five-year sentence was reversed after he spent two years in state prison. Chavez, who also spent roughly two years behind bars, was released last April pending his ongoing appeal.

Both men say they've given up their dream of providing free cannabis to sick people in Orange County. Chavez, who became the victim of an undercover police sting after he ignored an Orange County judge's order to cease distributing cannabis to members of his organization, says he won't make the same mistake again. He claims the cannabis co-op, which he re-christened the Orange County Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group, is still active, but it now provides only pamphlets about medical marijuana to sick people.

"The Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group is a clearinghouse of information and literature about the medical uses of cannabis," Chavez explained. "People are having trouble finding doctors willing to prescribe the medicine. There are only two doctors in Southern California who will—one in Santa Barbara and one in Santa Monica. So we're urging people to educate their doctors and give them these pamphlets."

In the early days, Herrick was Chavez's partner. A onetime Vietnam combat medic, Herrick broke his back during a car accident while working as a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy. He says he's receiving post-traumatic stress disorder treatment from the Veterans Health Administration. His political agenda is more modest now: he wants his VA doctor to write him a prescription for cannabis. "If he does that, it'll be the first time that happens with the VA," Herrick said.

Both Herrick and Chavez—who suffers from a rare bone disorder—have written recommendations from doctors allowing them to grow medical marijuana in their homes. Chavez grows the drug, as does Bill Britt, the Hemp Council's terminally ill vice president, who suffers from severe arthritis and uses a cane. All three men said that police have finally stopped hassling them about growing marijuana on their own property. "This is the first time I have had my own high-quality medicine," Britt said.

Orange County officials were not alone in their campaign to kill Prop. 215. But other medical-marijuana organizations have fought back. In northern California, Prop. 215 activists are waging ongoing recall campaigns against local prosecutors who busted cannabis cooperatives in Placer and Marin counties after the initiative passed.

The Orange County Hemp Council's most ambitious plan is to apply for federal National Endowment of the Arts funding to expand the group's "Mobile Hemp Museum," which currently consists of a small table stacked with hemp products and memorabilia, such as an 1870s-era doctor's prescription for cannabis.

While the members of the Hemp Council, especially activists like Chavez and Herrick, aren't optimistic that county officials will ever allow them to distribute medical marijuana to sick people, self-proclaimed cannabis expert Mollat remains convinced he can persuade officials to allow him to do just that.

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