When Dennis Peron, medical marijuana patients, clandestine financiers, and activists celebrated passage of the country’s first medical marijuana law in California in 1996, they never anticipated that the simply-worded ballot initative, known as Proposition 215, would be so hard for police, prosecutors and judges to understand.
At first glance, the wording of the ballot initiative that easily passed muster with a majority of California voters seems easy to decipher. The text indicates that a person with a bona fide doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana should not be subject to any official harm for growing or possessing marijuana. Further, the initiative indicated that a medpot patient could designate a “caregiver” who would oversee provision of medical marijuana, and it also instructed the State of California to look into ways of providing a safe supply of medical marijuana to Californians.
But ever since Pro. 215 passed, it has been the subject of confusion and controversy. Police continue to arrest people, some of them sick and dying, even though they have doctor’s recommendations. Interpretations of the number of growing plants per patient allowed under the law, or the amount of marijuana a patient is allowed to possess, vary county by county. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who initially voiced support for Prop. 215, has done little to make sure that sick and dying patients are free from police and prosecutorial harassment. Governor Gray Davis, who gets most of his campaign contributions from the prison guard lobby, has also refused to help implement the will of the people.
Linguistic and practical confusiona abounds. The meaning of the word “caregiver” has been defined as “a person who knows the patient and is responsible for their daily care,” but people who run so-called “medical marijuana clubs” have argued that a caregiver is anybody that a patient relies on to provide them with medical marijuana. Such distinctions have made it all the way to federal courts and the US Supreme Court, which have consistenly rejected the assertion that medpot clubs are valid under Prop. 215. In one case that went awry, the US`Supreme Court ruled that marijuana was not a medicine.
Northern California attorney Dale Rasmussen has seen the fallout from Prop. 215 confusion first hand. In 1999, he stepped in to help Cannabis Culture journalist Pete Brady defend himself after Brady was arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana during a raid designed to force Brady to testify against medpot politician Steve Kubby, who himself had been arrested days earlier.
Brady refused to assist narks in attacking Kubby. Instead, he provided pivotal anti-police testimony that helped destroy marijuana charges leveled against Kubby in the 1999 arrest and a subsenquent trial, but Rasmussen was troubled that a medically-disabled individual who possessed a bona fide medical history and doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana still had to go through what Brady and other medical cannabis users go through in some counties, despite Prop. 215’s alleged protections.
“I believe that what was intended was that people who have the doctor’s recommendation are not to be arrested or prosecuted,” Rasmussen explained recently from his home in Chico, which is located in conservative Butte County. “But the way it turned out, in part due to the initiative’s language, and in part due to the attitudes and practices of some police officers and prosecutors, patients really didn’t know if they were protected or not. It was a big guessing game that could end with somebody being in handcuffs.”
Brady represented himself in court until Rasmussen stepped in to assist with complex legal motions and procedural issues, and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey later dropped charges against Brady, citing in part his belief that Brady was indeed covered under Prop. 215, but the successful outcome didn’t satisfy Rasmussen, who has since defended other clients who sought protection from Prop. 215.
“Brady was arrested, jailed, had to post bail, had his house ransacked, had to pay a bail bondsman, endured community humiliation and medical problems, had to pay for an attorney and spent several months of his life wondering if he was going to prison,” Rasmussen explained. “In the end, he was allowed to use Prop. 215 as an ‘affirmative defense,’ and it eventually won him a dismissal, but he believed, as do other patients in California, that he should not have been arrested at all.”
Unlike many attorneys, who are content to let the nation’s marijuana laws and the resulting 800,000 pot arrests per year provide them with a guaranteed income, Rasmussen has done much to correct the situation.
In 1999 and 2000, he studied Prop. 215 and California’s marijuana statutes while also networking with marijuana activists. He hoped to re-draft Prop. 215 and put it back on the ballot in the year 2000.
“I wanted to add some clarifications and make sure that everybody understood the ground rules,” Rasmussen explained. “For example, if a patient is on probation, the probation rules forbid them from using controlled substances. I wanted to make sure that such rules did not interfere with a patient’s right to use the best medicine for them. In other cases, the use of medical marijuana was being used in family court by one parent against another. There were all kinds of issues and specifics that were not anticipated by the framers of Prop. 215 that I hoped to clear up.”
Rasmussen was unable to get enough assistance to revise Prop. 215 and put it back before the voters, but he later decided to work for change locally by running against Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey during this year’s county district attorney election.
Ramsey and Butte County sheriffs have been especially tough on medpot defendants and marijuana users in general. A centerpiece of Rasmussen’s insurgent campaign for the DA’s office was that he would respect Prop. 215 and make enforcement and prosecution of laws against non-violent, harmless personal behavior a low priority if he was elected.
Although Ramsey has long held the DA’s chair in Butte County, and came into the campaign with all the strengths that incumbency can provide, Rasmussen’s inexperienced, underfunded campaign gained strength as election day neared. He lost the election, but won a surprising 42% of the vote in a county that voted against Prop. 215 in 1996.
With the DA campaign behind behind him, Rasmussen is still trying to fix the medpot law.
“I’d like to rewrite the statutes governing the state’s marijuana laws, and put the rewrite up for voter approval via ballot initiative in 2004,” Rasmussen says. “This would not be a rewrite of Prop. 215. Instead, we would change the entire legal status of marijuana so that there was some fairness and specificity built in to the system, and so that the federal government would find it harder to interfere in the lives of California citizens.”
An example of changes Rasmussen would make?
“Currently, if police want to get a search warrant for suspected marijuana crimes, they only have to specify that they suspect that marijuana is present. I would make it that they have to be able to prove, before they go in, that the suspected marijuana is not being used medicinally. I want to take the guesswork out of it, and prevent police and prosecutors from making decisions about who is and who is not a patient. I also want to protect people from the harmful effects of being arrested. People can argue all they want about whether marijuana is a good medicine or whether it hurts people, but one thing is clear, enforcement of marijuana laws hurt people, and some of the people it hurts are sick and dying patients who believed that the voters of California protected them in 1996,” Rasmussen stated.
The Chico attorney, who is widely known for creative and victorious legal strategies and a willingness to fight for justice in court and in the media, says he welcomes the assistance of national reform organizations like NORML, as well as state organizations, medpot activists and concerned individuals.
“We need to meet deadlines, gather signatures, and jump through other hoops to get this thing done right,” Rasmussen said. “I can’t do it alone, but I would love to see it happen soon. It’s been six years since the law passed, and there is still no uniform enforcement, and still a lot of bad feelings about the way things have turned out. If people want to make the situation more fair, more intelligent, and more sensible, I am ready to help.”
– Serious people who want to assist attorney Dale Rasmussen’s quest to rewrite California’s marijuana laws are urged to contact him via email at [email protected] or via phone at 530-342-5130.