Dude, Where's My Pot?

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

Denny says police have used similar tactics in northern California, but that in Orange County, law enforcement's undercover behavior is matched by its public crusade against cannabis. "What these guys do is emblematic of the Orange County sheriff's political position," Denny says. "This sheriff and his drug-war minions are willing to use their offices to further their own political agenda. But the genie is out of the bottle. There is no way they can stuff it back in. The fact that the DA, the sheriff or the Board of Supervisors opposes cannabis isn't going to stop it. But the poor patients will be made to suffer and [be] intimidated and threatened and jailed until it gets resolved, and I think it's a shame."

Nobody in Orange County has paid a higher price in the war on medical marijuana than Marvin Chavez, a cannabis user who suffers from a debilitating spine disease called ankylosing spondilitis, for which he wears a back brace. Along with David Herrick, a former cop and combat medic who learned about the benefits of medical marijuana in Vietnam, Chavez co-founded Orange County's first cannabis co-operative 10 years ago, shortly after Prop. 215 became law.

After a year of making speeches at city council meetings—hardly the favored tactic of an underground pot merchant—Chavez finally won a license for his co-op from the city of Garden Grove. Tipped off by his public appearances, the city's cops infiltrated his group by posing as medical-marijuana patients and caregivers with what turned out to be forged doctor's notes. The narcs convinced Chavez to accept small donations to his co-op in return for baggies of pot. Prosecutors charged Chavez and Herrick with several counts of selling marijuana.

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

During his 1998 trial, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris—who later crashed his car into a tree while driving drunk—prohibited Chavez from mentioning Prop. 215. DA prosecutor Carl Armbrust, a stern septuagenarian who advised chronically ill patients to ditch their pot and drink scotch to relieve their pain, threatened to arrest a member of Chavez's co-op who failed to appear in the courtroom until he learned the man had just died of cancer. Not permitted to consider the applicable state law, a jury ultimately convicted Chavez of selling pot; Borris sentenced him to six years in prison.

Herrick also was convicted of selling pot and sent to prison, but his conviction was reversed in 1999, when an appeals court ruled that Armburst had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct. The following year, Chavez walked out of prison in northern California pending the outcome of his appeal. That same day, he learned that Jack Schacter, a friend and fellow co-op founder who had been forced to testify against him, had just died of AIDS. Chavez re-formed the co-op, and not surprisingly, he found himself in trouble again. On Sept. 6, 2001—just five days before the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil—Santa Ana police raided his house and confiscated his cannabis plants. A few months later, he lost his appeal and went back to state prison.

The experience hasn't dimmed Chavez's desire to see the day when local enforcement officials such as Carona and Rackauckas start obeying the law. He says he plans to give his defunct OC cannabis co-op a third chance, despite the proven risks. "What's really upsetting is they are not giving us a chance to work together," Chavez says. "They are just flat-out saying, 'We will arrest you, intimidate you, throw you in jail and turn your lives upside-down.' I've paid my dues. It's 2007 now, but wow, here we go again."

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