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There's a Word for Some People Who Try to Assist the Sick: Felon


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Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Patt Morrison
Published: November 25, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Los Angeles Times
Contact: [email protected]

There were moments yesterday when I had to keep looking around me — at the desk with the federal judge sitting way up there, at the Great Seal of the United States etched into the green marble, at the blue-blazered federal marshals — to remind myself where I was, and what I was doing there: This wasn't an awards ceremony, it was a criminal sentencing for a felon.

Through Judge A. Howard Matz's courtroom have come cases of prostitution, bribery, Rampart lies, stolen dope, crooked lawmen and a lawsuit over Britney Spears and roller skates. Many words have been used to describe the felons who have stood where defendant Scott Imler stood yesterday, but the words I heard yesterday weren't words I'm used to hearing about a criminal — and especially not from the judge who was about to sentence him.

"There's a word called 'mensch' that applies to who you are," Matz told him. "A truly admirable personality." As I said, I had to keep telling myself — this is a sentencing, not a Scott Imler Day ceremony.

Imler is the father, the co-author, of Proposition 215, the measure that legalized the medical use of marijuana. Eight other states have such laws, and all of them are in conflict with federal law, which absurdly puts marijuana right up there with heroin and crack as a Schedule I drug — as dangerous as they come. 

If you want some comparison, try this: morphine, methamphetamine — speed — and OxyContin, said to be Rush Limbaugh's narcotic siren, are only rated Schedule II.

With the blessing of the city of West Hollywood and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Imler ran the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. It was a tight ship — none of this scribbling of doctors' recommendations on cocktail napkins. Patients had to have legit letters from real doctors, and renew them regularly. There was a 24-hour hotline for cops who wanted to check whether they'd nabbed a recreational toker or a cancer patient. There were photo IDs of the CRC's patients, who numbered nearly a thousand. Some of them were in court yesterday, cramming the benches along with clergymen in notched collars.

The CRC was a textbook how-to case for Proposition 215, and yet in October 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Drug Enforcement Administration busted the club, and arrested Imler and two colleagues for violating federal law.

With the threat of being charged as a racketeer and a dope dealer and maybe worse, Imler and the center's vice president and treasurer, Jeffrey Farrington and Jeffrey Yablan, pleaded guilty to maintaining a drug establishment, and hoped that the judge would be more thoughtful than the DEA.

He was. Matz paged through letter after letter that heaped praise upon praise for the guilty man and his two colleagues. A mayor wrote one. Two state senators. A Methodist leader. Imler's attorney, Ronald Kaye, spoke with a quaver in his voice about the "honor" of representing such a man. 

"I'm not going to say I've never gotten letters as important as these," Matz said, "but I've never gotten letters more important than these." The words the judge had for the DEA, albeit carefully parsed within the iron palings of federal law, were stinging. "I think this entire prosecution was badly misguided. Given the huge scope of federal jurisdiction and the great prevalence of crime in our community," this case "baffles me, disturbs me, but that's [the DEA's] prerogative…."

Matz gave each man the most lowball sentence he could — a year's probation, and community service. He'd tried to sentence Imler to six months' probation, but the fellow from the federal probation department stood up in the front row and told the judge quietly that yes, your honor, it has to be a year minimum. So a year it was.

On Monday, Imler will undergo surgery at the City of Hope for lung cancer. The prosecution suggested that his condition could be dealt with in federal prison, but Matz swatted that down: "For someone to say this is not an extraordinary impairment suggests to me that person has had no experience with cancer — not as patient, a friend, a caregiver, or in any human way." 

Two things are running headlong into each other here, and people like Scott Imler are not the only ones being caught in the collision. All of us are getting it in the shorts.

The first is states' rights versus federal law. The Bush administration seems to like states' rights well enough when it agrees with them — like Big Daddy laws requiring women to put in 24 hours of "reflection" before getting an abortion, or revving up coastal oil drilling off California despite 30 years of unmistakable public ferocity on the subject.

The administration jumped into bed with oil companies and engine makers to block cleaner fuel conversion rules in Southern California, saying we can't make laws stricter than federal ones. [Fine — if they'll breathe our air, I'll live by their rules.] Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dianne Feinstein just faced down the feds so California can go ahead with its stricter rules for gunk-spewing small engines like the ones on lawnmowers and boats. 

And when it comes to ranking marijuana as more dangerous than morphine, never mind that the government contradicts itself — Matz cited a study commissioned by the White House that "cautiously endorsed the medical use of marijuana." Obviously the DEA doesn't have copies of the report lying around in its coffee-break rooms.

Which brings up the other head-on collision: that great oxymoron, political science — what happens when politicians make their own science.

The world's experts are virtually unanimous that global warming is real and a threat — but Congress and the Bush administration don't believe in it, so they won't fight what they don't believe exists. 

The pesticide DDT has caused untold damage to the natural world, and its ban has helped make amends, but House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, a former exterminator, has said it's not harmful, and even wanted to make it legal again.

The Bush administration has been accused of playing fast and loose with information on government Web sites about breast cancer and abortion, to suit its anti-abortion agenda. And there was the North Carolina lawmaker and amateur ob-gyn who argued that women who are raped can't get pregnant. "The facts are that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don't flow, the body functions don't work." (He said that in the last half-dozen years of the 20th century, by the way.) And of course in the same decade of the same century, the Kansas Board of Education banned the teaching of evolution, the age of the Earth, the Big Bang and plate tectonics. It reversed itself about two years ago, thus perhaps proving that human brains do evolve, after all.

I spent some time with Scott Imler at his cannabis club a few years ago, when Proposition 215 was in the wind. I went there as a columnist, not as a client, although I could have — I'd had undiagnosed glaucoma since I was a teenager, and by the time they caught it, no drops or pills could keep it in check, and in the few weeks before my surgery, my doctor told me to smoke marijuana every day. It was like working in an ice cream store — sounds like a dream come true at first, but pretty soon, and I mean soon, you can't stand the stuff.

Steven Jay Gould, the Harvard paleobiologist, smoked marijuana to keep down the nausea from chemotherapy. Lyn Nofziger, the World War II veteran and first-string Reagan loyalist, supported medical marijuana, after it was the only thing that relieved his daughter's pain from cancer. Bill Lockyer, the state attorney general, came out in support of medical marijuana after his mother and sister died of leukemia, and it "seemed odd" to him that "a doctor could give them morphine but couldn't give them marijuana." 

Behind me in court yesterday, a couple of men were whispering. They were hoping that Arnold — Gov. Schwarzenegger — will "come down on our side of this. We know he's tried the recreational kind." Schwarzenegger versus the DEA — now that I'd pay Saturday-night movie ticket prices to see. 

Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. 

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