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DEA agent accused of defying state constitution, judge's order

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Don Nord did not want to get caught up in a conflict between state
and federal law over whether he can keep and use marijuana.

The Hayden man, who has a state Medical Marijuana Registry card
allowing him to use the drug for pain caused by his cancer and
phlebitis, just wants to recover the marijuana confiscated from him
by a federal agent.

But that desire has planted him squarely in the middle of the tussle
between federal and state officials. Although Colorado law allows the
use of marijuana by authorized patients, federal law still forbids
it. The dispute has been fought in courts from California to
Washington, D.C., but has yet to be resolved.

Now, what started for Nord as possession of a few bucks' worth of
dope has developed into a lesson in federalism. And his situation
casts a spotlight on how the national debate over medical marijuana
affects individuals, some of them poor and most in pain.

Nord's saga began Oct. 14. That's when nine members of the Grand,
Routt and Moffatt County drug task force - one federal agent and
eight local law enforcement officers - raided his tiny apartment,
armed with a search warrant from Routt County Judge James Garrecht.
They took three marijuana plants, 5 ounces of loose marijuana, a
smoking pipe, some growing equipment and even Nord's registry ID card.

After Nord's attorney sent Garrecht a copy of the ID card, the judge
in November ordered that everything taken, including the legal limit
of 2 ounces of loose marijuana, be returned to Nord by Dec. 29. Nord
was never charged with a crime.

The task force returned nearly everything two days before Christmas -
everything but the 2 ounces of marijuana. The federal agent who took
it from Nord says the stuff is illegal contraband, according to
federal law, and that he doesn't have to return it.

On Dec. 30, Kristopher Hammond, Nord's attorney, filed a motion for
contempt against the federal agent, Doug Cortinovis of the Drug
Enforcement Administration, "for failing to follow the Colorado
Constitution and a judge's orders." On Feb. 2, Cortinovis is headed
to court to show why he shouldn't be held in contempt - of state
court, that is.

And the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, which usually prosecutes
criminals, will be forced to defend a federal agent against state
charges.

Nord says the fight is a matter of personal comfort.

"I'm in a lot of pain now," he said. "I can't sleep without it. I
really don't have the money to buy more."

But it's also a matter of principle.

"My client is (angry)," Hammond said. "Sure, he could go out and find
some more (marijuana). He could just let the police get away with
violating the Colorado Constitution and a court order. But he doesn't
want to do that.

"He went to the trouble of getting a medical marijuana certificate,
and he thought it meant something. Now this federal agent says he
doesn't care about state law."

Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, refused to
comment on the case, other than to say, "(Cortinovis) is our client,
and we will defend him vigorously. Our pleadings will state our
position."

Cortinovis, who didn't return calls to The Denver Post, said through
the U.S. Attorney's Office that he upholds only federal law, which
bans marijuana except for small amounts for research.

Nord, 57, lost a kidney to cancer and suffers from phlebitis and
diabetes. He's in chronic pain. In 2002, he applied for and received
a registry card to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes. Only nine
states have such a law, and fewer than 300 people in Colorado have
such ID cards.

A former laborer and maintenance man, Nord can't work and lives on a
fixed income of $655 a month from Social Security disability. He says
good-quality marijuana, "which doesn't hurt my lungs," costs $100 a
quarter ounce. That amount, he says, lasts him about two weeks.

Hammond said a person with a medical marijuana card is allowed to
have six plants and 2 ounces of loose marijuana. The loose marijuana
that is now the subject of the court fight was old, Nord said, and no
longer worked for him because it lacked the active agent THC. He said
he was using it for fertilizer.

The plants that were confiscated in the raid, he said, weren't ready
to be smoked yet and now are worthless.

Hammond said Nord has made small monthly payments to him for
representing him but that he hopes the judge will order Cortinovis to
pay Nord's attorney's fees.


By <mailto:mmcphee@denverpost.com>mmcphee@denverpost.com
Mike McPhee
Denver Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2004 -