A Second Chance

Photo by Johan VogelOn April 21, Marvin Chavez—the founder of the Orange County Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group and OC Weekly's 1998 Man of the Year—walked out the doors of Vacaville State Prison in northern California more than four years ahead of schedule. A week earlier, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Borris, the man who in January 1999 sentenced Chavez to prison for selling marijuana, ordered Chavez released on bail pending his upcoming appeal.

His release after 15 months behind bars arrived almost six months after the California Court of Appeals overturned the May 1998 conviction of fellow cannabis co-op founder David Lee Herrick (see "Redemption Song," Dec. 17, 1999). Herrick's conviction came at the hands of now-retired DA prosecutor Carl Armbrust, who spent his last day as a lawman seeing Chavez sentenced.

In the Herrick case, the appeals court found that Armbrust willfully misled the jury about Herrick's ability to introduce evidence at trial. Borris' decision to release Chavez pending the outcome of his appeal revolves around the same allegations of misconduct by Armbrust. This may signal the end of Orange County's no-holds-barred war on medical-marijuana activists.

"My spirit is strong, and it feels good knowing that I stood my ground," Chavez said in an April 25 interview with the Weekly. "I'm glad it's over. They may think I'll come back and mess up again, but that's not what I'm going to do."

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Chavez said he has no plans to continue distributing marijuana to cannabis-club members—the practice that landed him in prison. Instead, he plans to distribute literature and hopes to arrange meetings between the Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group and the Orange County Board of Supervisors on implementing Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana initiative passed by state voters in November 1996. "I want to reach out to these individuals and see if we can sit down and talk like human beings about this," Chavez explained. "I want to make sure that nobody else gets arrested."

Chavez hoped to arrange such meetings four years ago, shortly after Prop. 215's passage. He made public announcements about his plans to establish a cannabis co-op, brought his appeal to various city councils in Orange County, and even wrote letters to then-OC Sheriff Brad Gates—all without success. That's when Chavez—along with Herrick and others—decided to take the law into his own hands and distribute marijuana to sick Californians with doctor's notes, in return for voluntary donations.

That seemed to be consistent with the new law. But OC law-enforcement officials found a loophole in the law—Prop. 215 said it was legal to use marijuana as medicine but provided no legal method of distribution—and exploited it ruthlessly. They arrested Herrick in late 1997, and when Chavez continued to distribute marijuana to people with doctor's notes, they arrested him a few months later, in January 1998. Unlike Herrick, Chavez was quickly released from jail in exchange for his promise to stop giving away marijuana. When co-op member James O'Hara died of cancer, Chavez changed his mind. Police then used undercover detectives posing as sick people with forged doctor's notes to dupe Chavez into providing them with marijuana. Chavez went back to jail.

"Everybody warned me, but I had to keep pursuing this," he recalled. "It wasn't a surprise when I got arrested. It was something I expected to happen."

Chavez now freely admits he ignored Herrick's pleas that he cease distributing cannabis through the co-op until the legal confusion over Prop. 215 could be cleared up —a decision that may have helped cause a falling-out between the two activists. Chavez said he hasn't spoken to Herrick in two years.

Chavez said he has also lost touch with Jack Schacter, another friend and fellow Orange County medical-marijuana activist. Just hours after Chavez flew home from prison via the Oakland airport, he got the news that Schacter had died on April 21 in Florida of AIDS. Like Herrick and Chavez, the Orange County district attorney's office had formally charged Schacter with several counts of selling marijuana. But when it became clear that Schacter wouldn't survive a potential prison term—or perhaps even a jury trial—it declined to prosecute.

The last time Chavez saw his friend was at Chavez's sentencing hearing in January. "He moved to Florida to live with his mom," Chavez said. "She took care of him until the end. They say he fought all the way and that he's resting now."

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