Pubdate: Thu, 4 Feb 1999
Source: Orange County Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 1999, Orange County Weekly, Inc.
Author:  Nick Schou


Like the enigmatic psycho killer in the penultimate act of a hackneyed
horror flick-the maniac who mysteriously returns to life as soon as
the hero turns his back-Orange County's war on medical marijuana just
won't die. It dispatched its latest victim with stunning severity on
Jan. 29. To perform the honors, distinguished former county prosecutor
Carl Armbrust took a break from his retirement to attend the
sentencing of Marvin Chavez, the medical-marijuana activist convicted
last November of selling marijuana to undercover cops.

That afternoon, Judge Thomas J. Borris sentenced Chavez to six years
in jail, a punishment that stemmed from an undercover operation
directed by Armbrust's anti-narcotics task force against Chavez's
Orange County Patient-Doctor-Nurse Support Group. As he exited Orange
County's West Municipal courtroom in handcuffs, Chavez looked to his
defense attorney, Jim Silva, and said forgivingly, "That's all right."
Silva couldn't help but think of the old cliche about Orange County
that ought to be reserved for history books and not newspaper
articles: "Behind the Orange Curtain."

"I wasn't sure what that phrase meant until today," said Silva, who
lives in Venice, during a Jan. 29 interview. "Judge Borris' decision
took me completely off-guard. It may change the whole political
landscape. Marvin only provided marijuana to patients or to undercover
cops pretending to be patients. But Judge Borris didn't even consider
that as a mitigating factor in his sentencing."

Almost as disturbing as Borris' sentence, Silva said, was the 30-page
probation report used in Friday's hearing. Among other considerations,
such as the two previous narcotics-related felonies on Chavez's
record, the report noted, "Mr. Chavez says he would continue to travel
around the state and 'educate' people about medical marijuana."

"The report makes it abundantly clear they don't want Marvin to
exercise his rights to free speech," concluded Silva. "Orange County
is willing to use incarceration as a means to prevent Marvin from
educating people about medical marijuana. That is exactly the kind of
thing that Fifth Amendment [advocates] would find repugnant."

Silva isn't alone in his feelings about the current state of justice
in Orange County. In fact, many observers to the drama that unfolded
toward the end of Chavez's high-profile trial found themselves
struggling to comprehend the harshness of his prison sentence. On Jan.
31, The Orange County Register, which had previously both criticized
and praised Borris for the fairness of his courtroom rulings,
lambasted Chavez's sentence as "near criminal."

"This is the battleground," declared Mike Vardoulis, vice president of
the OC Hemp Council. "Orange County, for whatever reason, wants to
display the least amount of sympathy to medical marijuana users. It's
open season." Vardoulis claimed that sending activists like Chavez to
jail is part of a silent conspiracy by government officials to cover
up the medicinal benefits of cannabis. "It's gotten pretty obvious,"
said Vardoulis. "So many people have been arrested, sent to jail, and
are being denied access to their medication."

Chavez isn't the only casualty of California's ongoing war on medical
marijuana-just the latest. On Jan. 19, just 10 days before Chavez was
sent to prison, police in northern California arrested Steve Kubby,
who last year ran unsuccessfully for California governor on the
Libertarian Party ticket. Arrested at their home near Lake Tahoe, both
Kubby and his wife were charged with cultivation and possession of
marijuana plants, despite the fact that Kubby, one of the original
authors of Proposition 215, carries a doctor's note permitting him to
grow and smoke the drug.

Last year, David Herrick, a former San Bernardino County sheriff's
deputy, received a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of
several of the same charges that later were used by OC prosecutors
against Chavez. Herrick, who suffers from a back injury, is now being
held at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, where he is reportedly
being denied access to his medication. He is also being denied
visits-or interviews-from reporters. Herrick's appeal is scheduled to
begin next month.

Meanwhile, the wheels of Orange County justice grind on. Of the three
individuals who risked their liberty to help sick Californians obtain
their legal medicine, two are now behind bars. On Feb. 3 the trial of
the third and final founding member of Orange County's now-defunct
Patient-Doctor-Nurse-Support-Group, Jack Schachter, began at the West
Municipal Court in Westminster. Like that of Marvin Chavez,
Schachter's case stems from Armbrust's undercover operation, which
relied on police officers posing as sick patients with doctors' notes
to trick Chavez into "dealing" baggies of marijuana marked "Not for
Sale-For Medicinal Use Only." If convicted, Schachter faces a maximum
sentence of several years in a state penitentiary.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Patrick Henry