Pubdate: Thu, 24 Jun 2004
Source: Los Angeles City Beat (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Southland Publishing
Author: Dean Kuipers
Cited: Americans for Safe Access


A South L.A. Sickle-Cell Patient Had To Sue The LAPD To Stop Pulling
Up Her Legal Pot Harvest.

When agents of the DEA came swarming over the garden wall into Sister
Somayah Kambui's backyard on October 8, 2003, guns drawn, the snappy,
outspoken medical marijuana patient wasn't really surprised. The house
she owns in South L.A. had been raided a reported six times since
1996, and usually in September or October - harvest time for
marijuana. The agents did not handcuff her, but asked her to step
aside so they could pull up 12 healthy plants, one of them the size of
a gangly Christmas tree. Kambui, who relies on marijuana to combat
debilitating pain from sickle-cell anemia, was in tears.

Then her eyes fixed on someone who turned her sorrow to rage:
accompanying the federal agents was LAPD Detective Steve McArthur.

McArthur had busted Kambui at least four previous autumns, and each
time there had either been no charges filed or, most important, she'd
been acquitted and her grow operation approved under California's 1996
Compassionate Use Act, better known as Proposition 215. Unable to get
an indictment under state law, McArthur had brought in the feds, whose
warrant was based solely on his testimony. After two hours of
questioning, the DEA set Kambui free, and one of the agents even gave
her a hug.

Kambui, however, had had enough of Detective McArthur. She filed a
civil suit against McArthur, the LAPD, the City of Los Angeles, and
"John Does 1-50" in January, backed by an increasingly effective
medical cannabis advocacy group, Bay Area-based Americans for Safe
Access. Steph Sherer, ASA' s executive director, says the group spends
most of its time battling federal raids, but this case sends an
important message to the state.

"The Compassionate Use Act has been in effect for seven years, and
there's been no implementation," says Sherer. "Activists and patients
across the state have done the best that they can to set policies that
work, but the truth is, these are sick people. We have to show cities
and counties there's actually a financial reason why they have to
start listening to this: million-dollar suits against their police

LAPD spokesman Jason Lee declined to comment on the case, noting, "It
is our policy of not making any statements on ongoing lawsuits."

"The LAPD, in particular, has frequently raided legitimate medical
marijuana patients, seized their medicine, and in the majority of
cases doesn't file charges," says Joe Elford, ASA attorney
representing Kambui. "We hope this will cause the police to change
their policy from 'seize first, ask questions later' to 'ask questions
first and seize only if those questions suggest that the person is not
in fact a legitimate medical marijuana patient.'"

"This man, McArthur, has literally thwarted our ability to reach our
goal," says Kambui, interviewed by phone from her home. The purpose of
the peer support group she founded, the Crescent Alliance Self Help
for Sickle Cell Research, is to empower sickle-cell sufferers through
"herbs, nutrition, and lifestyle change," she says, and get them off
heavy narcotics.

"I know of no other class, race, creed - designated genetically or
otherwise - born to live and to die to be dependent upon narcotics,
and to be dependent on the conventional medical world. That's
bullcrap," she growls. "That sounds like slavery."

The suit seeks to redress unreturned property and civil rights
violations, not from the 2003 DEA raid, but from a previous incident
in which McArthur arrested Kambui on September 26, 2002. At least one
of the 16 causes of action listed in the suit could result in punitive
damages. She is also seeking injunctions to prevent the LAPD from
having any part in future raids on her legal stash.

Kambui has a lot at stake; with two felony convictions from her work
in the early 1970s with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, she
risks a 25-to-life sentence under California's "three strikes" law if
she were ever convicted on pot offenses.

The story of this lawsuit begins on October 5, 2001, when McArthur led
a team of LAPD officers into Kambui's home and arrested her, warrant
in hand, seizing what officers claimed were 260 pounds of wet-weight
marijuana, pot cookies, and "hash oil." Kambui was indicted on 14
counts and spent 62 days in jail before going to trial, during which
time her health deteriorated. On the stand, expert witnesses clarified
that the real dried weight of Kambui's marijuana crop was 11-25 pounds
(still a sizable amount) and that the so-called "hash oil" was really
hempseed oil, pressed from sterilized seeds, with negligible amounts
of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot. On
March 18, 2002, she was acquitted on all counts and her cannabis was
returned to her.

Six months after her 2002 acquittal, however, Kambui was raided again
by McArthur on September 26, and this time he had no warrant. Officers
found Kambui and her brother praying in the garden, where 25 plants
were growing. According to testimony given by her brother, who was
arrested, one of the officers called for a warrant right there on the
spot and was denied. With no warrant and no subsequent indictment, all
charges were later thrown out, and Kambui and her brother were
released after four days. The plants were destroyed.

It is this raid, the September 26, 2002 search and seizure, that is
the subject of the lawsuit.

Kambui was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia at age 19 when she was in
the U.S. Air Force. Her father, a Choctaw Indian, introduced her to
pot as a way to cope with the excruciating pain caused by the disease,
which increases with age. The fatal malady is usually treated with
morphine and other opiates, and many sickle-cell patients actually die
of a morphine overdose. Kambui's Veterans Administration physician,
Dr. Alan Lichtenstein, and Dr. William Eidelman of Santa Monica, whose
license was temporarily suspended in 2001 for distributing medical
marijuana, both testified at her trial that marijuana was uniquely
suited to manage pain in Kambui's case, because she was allergic to
Demerol and it allowed her to drastically cut her morphine intake.
Kambui credits the weed with keeping her alive. She doesn't smoke it,
but almost always cooks the buds into teas, tinctures, and foods. Her
folk remedy and her research have been published in the New England
Journal of Medicine.

"This kind of shows you how ass-backwards all this is," says Elford.
"In the name of the drug war, they're trying to require someone to
take much more serious narcotics than relatively harmless marijuana.
And in this case, not just much more serious narcotics in terms of
toxicity and addictiveness, but in this case, narcotics that are
actually extremely harmful to the person prescribed them."

In 1993, Kambui founded the Crescent Alliance, which informs patients
how to use cannabis to manage pain, including frank discussions about
how to grow weed, press hemp oil (which she claims has
anti-inflammatory properties), and use massage, baths, and other
techniques to battle pain and inflammation. Sherer believes it is this
aspect of her work, in which patients with sickle-cell, AIDS, cancer,
and other ailments come to her house, that is the real reason for the
repeated busts.

When asked how many patients she sees at her house, Kambui replies:
"That's confidential. But I work with a substantial amount, obviously
a threat to the LAPD - enough to where they think I'm gonna have some
kind of economic development program going on here, and gee, I might
end up being independent or something."

That independence, says Steph Sherer, lies at the heart of this case;
Proposition 215 was supposed to give patients another option for treatment
of serious illness. "That's a huge part of this issue," she says, "money and
politics deciding about your life. I guarantee if you ask any person in the
United States: 'Would you break a law to live?' Hell, yeah, you would."

More information on Kambui's case can be found at:
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin