Medical-Marijuana Growers On The Lookout

These past few nights, Steve McWilliams hasn't rested very comfortably.

In this most sensitive time of the season, McWilliams has taken to sleeping
in his garden, next to thousands of dollars' worth of maturing marijuana
plants he smokes to ease chronic pain from a motorcycle crash.

Twice this week, and too many times in the past to count, thieves tried to
climb into his yard and steal his crop. Last year, he was beaten and kicked
in the head by someone who was after his plants.

"We're basically held hostage on our own property," said McWilliams, a
longtime medical-marijuana activist who lives in Normal Heights. "We're in
danger of losing our medicine."

It's harvest time in San Diego County, and McWilliams and others like him
who grow medical marijuana are keeping 24-hour watch over their gardens.

They have spent hundreds of dollars to beef up security, installing locks
and alarm systems or building taller fences, but the worry over potential
thieves has not receded.

In May, John Barrymore III underwent six hours of brain surgery after being
attacked by teen-agers who stole more than 100 medical-marijuana plants
from his Bay Area home. Barrymore is the grandson of the early film star,
John Barrymore, and the stepbrother of actress Drew Barrymore.

A few days before that assault, a grower in the College Area of San Diego
was confronted at his front door by a man with a gun. Two accomplices ran
into his back yard with knives and cut down his plants while the victim had
a gun held to his head.

The man never told police. "We were too afraid," said the patient, who did
not want his name published for fear he might get robbed again.

Phil Hansen, an AIDS patient from Ocean Beach, uses marijuana to reduce the
side effects from his medication. He has grown his own plants for several
years, and has had more than one run-in with thieves.

"It's something to deal with," said Hansen, 52. "I keep the fence really
well secured now. I put some nailboards across the top . . . I haven't had
any trouble this year."

When thieves do come - they seem to show up every year - growers often
complain that police are slow to investigate - in part, the growers say,
because police disagree with the state law that allows patients to
cultivate marijuana.

With a street value of $400 or more an ounce for some varieties, marijuana
buds can be more valuable than gold.

Without better protection from police, the growers say, patients will not
benefit from the law that entitles them to grow and use the drug, and their
pain and suffering will be worsened.

"If you can't do it, and do it safely, then it's not going to happen," said
McWilliams, who recently completed three years of probation after pleading
guilty in 1999 to misdemeanor cultivation. McWilliams also runs the Shelter
from the Storm cannabis club in Normal Heights, the only place south of Los
Angeles that dispenses medical marijuana.

San Diego police deny they treat reports of medical-marijuana thefts

"Burglaries where property is taken are all treated the same, whether it's
a potted plant or a marijuana plant," department spokesman Bill Robinson said.

"Normally if there's no suspect information, the reports may be taken over
the phone, but they're treated equally."

McWilliams said police need to be more responsive to the plight of
medical-marijuana patients. If police actively investigated the thefts or
attempted thefts, culprits would know they might get caught, he said.

McWilliams said that because San Diego officers have declined to follow up
leads provided by him and his partner, Barbara MacKenzie, the would-be
thieves persist.

"They told me not to advertise," McWilliams said. "But we're activists -
that's what we do."

Proposition 215, approved in 1996 by California voters, grants chronically
ill patients the right to use and grow marijuana if they have a doctor's
letter of recommendation.

The state law clashes with federal drug policies, however. Federal courts
have yet to fully decide the legality of using marijuana for medicinal
purposes; the California Supreme Court last month granted medical users
limited immunity from prosecution.

The murky legal standing of medical marijuana has left city and county
governments in the difficult position of having to enforce conflicting laws.

After years of debate, the city of San Diego plans to begin issuing
identification cards to some 1,500 medical-marijuana patients later this
year as a means of keeping track of who is eligible to use and cultivate
the drug.

But questions remain over how large a garden or how many plants patients
may be allowed to grow. Across the state, other jurisdictions have opted
for allowing as few as three and as many as 99 plants.

The San Diego City Council likely will take up the pending recommendations
of the medical marijuana task force late this year or early next year.

Until then, "It's important for the police to come here and say what we're
doing is legal," said MacKenzie, who shares guard duty with McWilliams.
"What the thieves are doing is illegal. This is an important message."

Pubdate: Thu, 29 Aug 2002
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Author: Jeff Mcdonald, Union-Tribune Staff Writer