CA NORML News
Grow Medicine, Lose Your Home???
SACRAMENTO. The U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of California is waging an aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana, taking up modest cases that would normally be tried in state court and pursuing them with federal charges involving heavy penalties.
Recent cases include Michael Lombardo, 49, who has been federally charged for a five-patient medical garden in Nevada County involving 65 to 100 plants, far below the typical 1,000-plant threshold for federal prosecution. While Lombardo's garden was arguably legal under California's medical marijuana law, no medical defense is available to him under federal law.
In addition, the federal government has filed to forfeit Lombardo's home. Under federal law, any property used to grow marijuana is subject to forfeiture, regardless of whether it was lawfully acquired. Lombardo, an electrician with no prior offenses, has owned his home for seven years.
The Sacramento DEA has also raided one of the most exemplary marijuana dispensaries in the district, River City Patients' Center, threatening its owner, Bill Pearce, with federal charges. Unlike many other dispensary raids, the DEA was not invited in by local police, who enjoyed good relations with River City. River City had been operating as a legitimate business, paying sales taxes to the state and employing nine workers with health insurance.
Other Eastern District Prop 215 caregivers facing federal forfeiture of their homes for cultivation include a Plumas County couple, Jeff Sanderson and Alice Wiegand (also facing criminal charges), Ron Hennig of Siskiyou County, James Robertson of Butte County, and Patricia Hatton, also of Butte County. Hatton's attorney, Jodea Foster, denounced the federal charges as "legal extortion."
The crackdown is being led by U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, who has been soliciting local law enforcement to turn over medical marijuana cases. Many DA's and sheriffs have been happy to do so in order to avoid the difficulties of state prosecution.
California NORML denounced both Scott and local law enforcement officials for conspiring to circumvent Prop. 215. "Federal laws against medical marijuana laws are inherently bankrupt and unjust," said California NORML director Dale Gieringer. Under federal law, defendants are denied the right to even mention medical marijuana or Prop. 215 at their trials. Medical marijuana defendants who are prosecuted in federal court typically receive tougher penalties than non-medical offenders in state court.
In some cases, Prop. 215 defendants in the Eastern District have been snatched up from state court and hauled off to jail on federal charges after having state charges dismissed. Recent examples include Gordon Rasmussen, charged with a 210- plant caregiver garden in Chico, and Donato Canceleno, a 63-year old disabled patient with a similar garden in Madera County. While each might have been found innocent under state law, they face a potential five-year mandatory minimum under federal law for growing over 100 plants.
The Eastern District is particularly notorious for harsh sentences against medical marijuana defendants. Examples include Dustin "DC" Costa, currently serving 15 years - the longest known sentence for any Prop 215 defendant - for a cultivation coop in Merced; Vern Rylee, a severely disabled patient from Trinity County who is serving 71 months in federal prison for cultivation, and David Harde, sentenced to 30 months for a caregiver garden in El Dorado County. Another severely ill defendant, Joe Fortt in Kern County, served 21 months in prison before being deported to Canada.
Eastern District prosecutors are currently seeking a five year mandatory minimum against Dr. Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer for growing for patients of their medical clinic in El Dorado County. Another Eastern District defendant, Bryan Epis, is currently appealing a 10-year sentence for a Prop 215 garden that he had wanted to organize as a legal co-op.
The Eastern District has also been aggressive in moving against medical cannabis dispensaries. In 2005, Scott circulated a memo to all DA's, sheriffs and police chiefs inviting them to hand over dispensary cases. Earlier this year, the DEA raided a major dispensary near Bakersfield, Nature's Medicinal, even though it had been licensed by the sheriff and was paying sales and payroll taxes. In another case, the feds moved to prosecute the proprietors of the California Healthcare Collective in Modesto even after they had paid some $1 million of sales taxes to the state.
California NORML denounced the federal government for wasting resources on imprisoning and prosecuting medical marijuana defendants rather than changing federal law. So far, more than 100 Californians have been federally charged for medical marijuana offenses (http://www.canorml.org/news/fedmmjcases.html). "The Department of Justice has prosecuted more California cases for medical marijuana than for terrorism," says Cal NORML director Dale Gieringer.
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