Cannabis News


Conflicting Pot Laws Entangle User


Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Jocelyn Y. Stewart, Times Staff Writer
Published: February 8, 2003 
Copyright: 2003 Los Angeles Times
Contact: [email protected]

A tenant with a prescription for marijuana confronts federal disapproval.

If he had kept quiet, nobody would ever have known about the marijuana plants growing in David Basford's living room. In the secrecy of his studio apartment in Los Angeles, he could have harvested the plants without jeopardizing his housing. Instead, honesty won out.

Basford showed the apartment manager his tiny crop, and explained that he needed the herb to reduce the wasting syndrome and nausea that come with AIDS. The manager of his federally subsidized apartment listened, sympathized and said he would get back to Basford.

Then word came from the owners of the building: The plants must go.

Now Basford is in a quandary, forced to weigh his housing needs against what he and his doctor consider his medical needs.

"I sit here very frustrated and in tears and very angry," said Basford, who has a doctor's note stating that he uses the herb for medical purposes. "Mostly it's a sense of helplessness that overwhelms me. I just want to live and live well, and I don't want to fight anymore."

Basford's landlord is A Community of Friends, a nonprofit that receives millions of federal dollars to operate housing and support services for homeless, disabled and very low-income people.

For the organization, the issue is a hard and fast legal one: Accepting federal money means following federal laws. Allowing Basford's crop could jeopardize funding and the well-being of other residents in the 48-unit building.

"He does have to stop," said Ronald Stewart, interim chief executive and chief operating officer of A Community of Friends. "Unfortunately, that's the law. Until that changes and situations change, we have to abide by the law."

This is a story, however, of not one law, but two, and how the conflict between those laws can affect the most intimate aspects of a person's life.

In California, possessing a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine. Cultivation is a felony.

But in 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, which permits patients to use marijuana with a doctor's note. It prompted the growth of cannabis clubs, safe places where marijuana could be bought.

The federal government, however, opposes marijuana use -- for any reason -- a position upheld in 2001 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After that ruling, federal agents began raiding marijuana clubs in California, including the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Basford had been a customer.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer condemned the Drug Enforcement Administration raids as wasteful and unwise.

In response to Lockyer's comments, Asa Hutchinson, head of the DEA, said science has not demonstrated the medical value of marijuana, a view shared by Congress and the Supreme Court.

"Moreover, state 'medical' marijuana laws -- including those in California -- are being abused to facilitate traditional illegal marijuana trafficking and associated crime," Hutchinson wrote.

Hutchinson also noted how the Federal Drug Administration reviews new drugs:

"Surely you are not recommending we sidestep our country's long-standing practice of rigorous scientific research before declaring a potentially harmful drug to be medicine," he said. "The FDA has never in the past approved medicine by popular referendum, and I believe it would be ill advised to set the precedent now."

But to Basford, the closing of the clubs, left medicinal users with three choices: Buy marijuana on the street, go without it or grow it themselves.

Each choice comes with risks and consequences. For a while he tried going without marijuana, but the nausea and vomiting returned.

"Since it isn't available, I've seen my weight go down," said Basford, who lost nearly 10 pounds. "It's not fat; it's muscle. I know it's a direct result of not having access."

Next, he decided to grow the plant himself. With friends, he built a "grow room," a discreet closet that blends with the furniture in his modest apartment.

Nothing about the closet gave any hint of its contents. But there was always the possibility that management might, for some reason, enter his apartment and discover the plants. Then there was the issue of living with secrets.

"I want to be able to handle this with integrity and honesty," he said. "I don't want to have to have things to hide."

Basford moved into the six-story, red-brick building in January 2001; his monthly rent is subsidized through the federal Section 8 program. Basford, who was once homeless and suffering from depression, found solace and comfort in his new apartment.

His resolve to be up front about his marijuana -- and to suffer the consequences -- was strengthened by hearing of sick people whose lives are more painful and uncomfortable because they cannot get marijuana. At least, he said, he is healthy enough to speak out; many others cannot.

Scott Imler, president of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, said Basford is "facing what 960 of our other members are going through every day, which is: Where do you get safe and affordable access to a safe product?"

Basford told the housing staff about the plants in October. Though he has no regrets about his decision, it has added one more problem to a life that has had its share of difficulties.

"I have this other thing looming over my head of homelessness," the 37-year-old said. "It doesn't make sense that any person should have to worry about homelessness when they're trying to meet their medical needs."

Recent court rulings seem to support the push to allow marijuana use for medical reasons.

In July, the California Supreme Court ruled that those who use or grow marijuana for personal medical use are protected from prosecution in state court.

The ruling overturned the felony conviction of Myron Carlyle Mower, a blind diabetic man who was prosecuted after police found 31 marijuana plants growing in the front yard of his home in Tuolumne County. Mower had a doctor's note recommending its use.

But the legal wrangling continues.

On Jan. 31, Ed Rosenthal, a self-described "guru of ganja," was convicted in federal court on charges of marijuana cultivation and conspiracy. The jury was not allowed to hear that Rosenthal was growing pot under Oakland's medical marijuana program for use by the sick or dying. Rosenthal, who has written and researched nearly 20 books on marijuana, faces 10 years to life in prison when he is sentenced.

On Tuesday in San Diego, the City Council voted to permit marijuana use for seriously ill patients, allowing those with a doctor's recommendation to keep as much as a pound of the drug for their own use.

Across the state, supporters have put up billboards urging "Compassion Not Federal Prison" for those who use or grow marijuana for medical reasons. Basford's dilemma is complicated by his living in federally subsidized housing. Last year the Supreme Court upheld the government's strict "one-strike, you're out" drug policy for residents of public housing.

The court ruled that tenants found with drugs on them -- even innocent people whose relatives or guests were found with drugs on or near a housing project -- could be evicted. The dispute over the plants has not reduced his appreciation of the nonprofit, he said.

A Community of Friends, which operates 17 properties in Los Angeles County, tries hard to maintain "substance-free living environments," Stewart said. Allowing Basford's plants could influence others in the building, some of whom have a history of substance abuse.

"It's not just David in his home," Stewart said. "It's part of a community."

Basford said that idea unfairly burdens him with the responsibility for others' care.

On Jan. 17, the management company delivered a letter giving Basford 24 hours to cease cultivating marijuana in his apartment. Staff members inspected the apartment Jan. 20 and found that he had complied, Stewart said.

Still, Basford maintains that he should be able to grow the plants to improve the quality of his health, and he is seeking legal help to make his case.

"I know this is right," he said. 

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