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Photo by Johan VogelExcuse Marvin Chavez if it all seemed like a bad flashback. Santa Ana police officers raided his home at about 9 p.m. on Sept. 6 and confiscated 46 live marijuana plants and "numerous" dried plants. It was the third time in as many years that Chavez had found himself playing a reluctant host to cops in his home—and the latest proof that Orange County law-enforcement authorities refuse to comply with California's overwhelmingly supported medical-marijuana law.
Proposition 215, the November 1996 medical-marijuana initiative that was also called the Compassionate Use Initiative, allows sick Californians to grow and smoke cannabis as long as they have written approval from a doctor. Orange County police and prosecutors campaigned vigorously against Prop. 215, and the most recent raid on Chavez shows they are still trying to defeat state law. Instead of drafting guidelines on how many cannabis plants sick residents should be able to grow, authorities have leveraged the law's ambiguities into arrests of such activists as Chavez.
The district attorney's office has not yet filed charges against him, but police cited Chavez for possession with intent to sell marijuana. People who lack a doctor's prescription can expect to be arrested for such a crime if police catch them with anything more than an ounce of marijuana—or a lesser amount divided into smaller baggies. Chavez, who has never made a secret of the fact that he grows and smokes marijuana, had at least 10 pounds of marijuana in his greenhouse and a storage shed, according to police.
Santa Ana police spokesman Sergeant Baldazar De La Riva told the Weekly that Chavez's house was raided after the department received a confidential tip that he was growing marijuana in a backyard greenhouse. Police were particularly troubled by the size of the crop, the sophistication of his growing techniques, and the fact that Chavez had packaged some of his harvested crop into "15 clear, Ziplock baggies."
"That's one of the things we're investigating: why someone growing marijuana for personal use would package it into individual baggies," De La Riva explained. "Had [Chavez] not had this history of prior arrests and a medical condition, he would have been booked and brought down to the station. We gave him the benefit of the doubt."
"This crop was for my personal use," Chavez told the Weekly the day after the police bust. "I have never hidden behind the law. The police aren't going after black-market distributors; they're going after sick, disabled and dying citizens."
Chavez said he smokes marijuana—and even eats it in butter form—because it relieves the painful symptoms of his ankylosing spondilitis, a rare disease that fuses his bones together. He claimed Santa Ana police violated his rights under Prop. 215 by ripping up his marijuana crop just weeks before harvesting season. Chavez also said police destroyed his greenhouse and seized computers and a homemade video on cultivating marijuana that he planned to share with fellow co-op members.
He is no stranger to the legal turmoil that has surrounded the medical marijuana movement ever since the passage of Prop. 215—particularly in Orange County. While the Oakland district attorney's office negotiated guidelines with local activists that allowed sick residents to grow up to 48 flowering and 96 non-flowering marijuana plants indoors (but not exceeding 72 plants total), no similar guidelines exist in Orange County. Instead, the official position in the county has been to investigate and prosecute medical-marijuana activists.
Three years ago, Chavez became one of the first victims of this trend when he provided marijuana to two undercover Garden Grove police detectives who posed as a sick patient and his caregiver desperate for medical cannabis. After a jury convicted Chavez of selling pot, he was sentenced in January 1999 to six years in prison. Pending his ongoing appeal, a judge released him in April 2000—with a renewed warning to Chavez not to continue distributing marijuana.
Alan Bock, an Orange County Register editorial writer and medical-marijuana expert, doubts that county prosecutors have enough evidence to file charges against Chavez. "If they don't have iron-clad proof of sales and transfers [of marijuana], they've got no business filing charges," said Bock, who added there is no limit to the amount of marijuana that sick Orange County residents who have their doctor's permission can grow. "The law doesn't have numbers in it," he said.
Chavez hopes the courts will eventually allow him to restart his co-op and, ultimately, share his marijuana surplus with co-op members too sick or otherwise unable to grow their own cannabis. But he insists he has learned his lesson about distribution and is currently sharing only literature and educational material—and not marijuana—with other sick Orange County residents.
"If they call and ask me to turn myself in, I will," Chavez promised. "I'm not hiding. I have nothing to hide. I'm not here to make money off the sick and dying citizens of this movement. I'm here to support and educate patients. Right now, they've got us scattered and terrified."