Dude, Where's My Pot?

Ten years after California legalized medical marijuana, OCs war on cannabis continues

In 2000, a high court in Guam reversed Guerrero's conviction, ruling that his arrest violated "the defendant's right to free exercise of his religion as protected by the United States Constitution and the Organic Act of Guam and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993." Four years later, the court dismissed his case. Guerrero, who routinely travels to Guam and the Caribbean for family visits and Rastafarian conferences, says he always carries cannabis with him, as it is an obligation of his church. He never has any problems. But in Orange County, he says, despite his federal protection and the fact that he has a doctor's note, he's still treated like an outlaw.

"I had a fire in my house in June 2002," Guerrero recalls. "The fire department came through and found processed herb in a room and cultivating plants in the back yard. They called the police, and they arrested me that night." The DA's office later dismissed the case because, Guerrero says, the lead investigator had resigned shortly after he was arrested. Prosecutors preferred to drop the charges rather than give Guerrero's attorney an explanation.

The city of Buena Park charged Guerrero with several building-code violations relating to his house fire. On March 1, a jury convicted him. He's currently appealing the conviction, arguing the city is discriminating against him because of his religious beliefs.

Richard Quell. Photo by John Gilhooley
Richard Quell. Photo by John Gilhooley

Although he doesn't share Guerrero's federal right to smoke pot, Lake Forest resident and medical-marijuana patient Josue Lopez can certainly share his frustration with Orange County law enforcement. In March 2005, he says, he was staying with some people he thought were his friends when they "jumped" him. His "friends" were after the three ounces of marijuana Lopez had in his backpack. Lopez called the police, who interviewed the suspects but said they didn't have enough evidence to press charges. Lopez got angry and started calling the DA's office, demanding to speak to Orange County's top prosecutor, Tony Rackauckas.

"I started calling the DA's office and told them off," Lopez says. "I kept calling every 30 minutes, pestering him until I got a hold of him. I told Rackauckas, 'You are not looking out for the best interest of the people. You are just about getting rich, and maybe one day, someone will get in there that knows what they are doing.'" Lopez says Rackauckas informed him that his office felt it couldn't obtain a favorable jury verdict.

Lopez grew to regret harassing Rackauckas on the telephone. On Aug. 4, 2005, sheriff's detectives arrested Lopez for cultivating and possessing marijuana with the intent to sell. While Lopez claims he was a "caregiver" to six people, the DA's office evidently thought—given that he was not primarily responsible for housing, feeding and clothing the patients he was supplying with cannabis—that he wasn't a caregiver under the law. Facing three years in prison, Lopez ultimately took a deal that put him in jail for six months. His probation officer allows him to smoke marijuana to alleviate pain and nausea from a hernia and back injuries from riding dirt bikes, but he worries he'll be arrested again.

"We are like apples in the orchard," Lopez says. "And the cops are there to take apples. We're always there, always around just to be picked off. We're job security for them. If their numbers are down, they can just bust people for marijuana."

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In Orange County, police haven't limited themselves to busting cannabis patients; they've also gone to extraordinary lengths in trying to undermine medical-marijuana activists. Just ask Dr. Philip Denny, one of the most prominent advocates of medical marijuana in California. For the past eight years, Denny has worked primarily out of his northern California offices in Redding and Sacramento, but in January 2004, he opened a third location in Lake Forest. One day, a man named John O'Brien visited his Lake Forest office and said he worked in the pharmaceutical industry and had a plan to treat chemotherapy patients with cannabis inhaled through vaporizers to reduce the harmful effects of the smoke.

"He was interested in what I thought about the idea and whether I had patients that might benefit from that sort of thing," Denny recalls. "He never became my patient, but we talked once or twice."

On Feb. 26, 2006, a man identifying himself as James Grid visited Denny's office, showing paperwork saying he suffered from a chronic sinus condition. Based on the previous diagnosis, Denny provided Grid with a physician's note stating that cannabis could help alleviate his condition. But Grid's paperwork turned out to be fake, and Grid turned out to be a Newport Beach narcotics detective named John Pallas. Pallas, in fact, was working with the Orange County Sheriff's Department in a sting operation against O'Brien, the medical-marijuana activist.

According to a police report filed by Pallas, O'Brien had offered to sell him marijuana if he received a physician's note from Denny. O'Brien followed up on his offer, and Pallas arrested him for selling marijuana.

After Denny discovered that Pallas had infiltrated his office with phony paperwork, he wrote Pallas a personal letter. "Despite signing a document stating that all the information you provided was true under penalty of perjury, you skillfully lied and falsified documents in order to obtain a medical cannabis recommendation," Denny wrote. "Under such circumstances, I must advise that your recommendation is invalid because it was obtained by fraud."

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