Former High Times columnist Ed Rosenthal appears beside a puppet of
Attorney General John Ashcroft outside a courthouse where Rosenthal's
marijuana cultivation trial is taking place, in San Francisco. - AP |
Ben Margot

* They viewed the glossy color photographs of meticulously tended
marijuana mother plants flourishing under timed lights inside an
Oakland, Calif. warehouse. Then they watched a videotape showing DEA
agents uprooting nearby marijuana cuttings to determine which had roots,
and could thus be considered "plants" under the federal sentencing

It was all in a day's work for jurors in the ongoing, and often surreal,
federal drug trial of former High Times advice columnist ''Ask Ed''
Rosenthal, who is facing 20 years in prison for cultivating medical
cannabis. *

Federal prosecutors have built their case against Rosenthal by barring
pre-trial testimony of Oakland city officials who said Rosenthal grew
the plants for the city's medical marijuana program. But the government
has subpoenaed testimony from an array of people who simply saw the
plants, including a fellow grower, the proprietor of a medical cannabis
club, Rosenthal's landlord, an electrician and even a fireman. These
legal tactics offer a blueprint of the government's strategy to halt the
distribution of medical marijuana in California - and perhaps in the
other seven states that have voted for it.

''This is the federal government at war with its own citizens and I like
to think that years from now we will look back on this as a dark chapter
in our nation's history,'' said California State Assemblymember Mark
Leno. ''The thought of a man like Ed Rosenthal being threatened with
twenty years of imprisonment is an outrage. The man is not a criminal.''

Federal prosecutors contend that marijuana is illegal and do not
recognize California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215) which
permits patients to possess, grow and consume cannabis with a doctor's
recommendation. Rosenthal, who has authored a half dozen how-to books on
marijuana growing, has been charged with maintaining a place to grow
marijuana at the Oakland warehouse and cultivating more than 100
marijuana plants at the site.

He has also been charged with conspiring to grow more than 1,000 plants
with Ken Hayes and Rick Watts at the Harm Reduction Center, a San
Francisco medical marijuana club. Prosecutors say Hayes fled to Seattle
where he chartered a small plane and flew to a remote Canadian airfield
with $13,000 hidden in his pants. Watts crashed his car after learning
that he too was facing 20 years in prison and his attorney says his
injuries prevent him from appearing in court.

Rosenthal's trial has become a cause celeb in Northern California where
activists have launched a billboard campaign to condemn the imprisonment
of medical cannabis growers. The billboards read: ''Compassion, Not
Federal Prison.''

Federal prosecutors made an unsuccessful appeal to the judge to keep
Rosenthal and his attorneys from speaking to the press after the San
Francisco Examiner published a front page photo of Rosenthal and his
daughter with the headline, "My Dad's A Hero.''

The government kicked off its case against Rosenthal by subpoenaing
James Halloran, his former marijuana cultivation and racquetball
partner, who was arrested in the same DEA sweep last February. Halloran
testified that shortly after the passage of Prop. 215, he signed a lease
on the 800-square-foot warehouse and brought in lights, fans and growing
trays to raise a crop of cloned cannabis plants with Rosenthal. Halloran
dissolved the partnership in 1998 and purchased plants from Rosenthal
for his own 4,000 plant medical marijuana growing operation.

Halloran, who was facing three life terms for these activities, agreed
to cooperate with the government for a reduced sentence of 56 months.

Rosenthal's former landlord, Leslie Wilmer, also testified that he saw
Rosenthal's cannabis crop, as did German Sierra, a firefighter with the
Oakland Fire Department. Sierra, who conducted a fire safety inspection
at the warehouse, noted that Rosenthal had an Oakland business license.
Both men were prevented from explaining why it did not occur to them to
report the crop to police.

''I've ruled that the purpose for which the marijuana was grown is not a
defense and is irrelevant,'' said Judge Charles Breyer.

Judge Breyer also rejected the defense's argument that the government
entrapped Rosenthal and blocked the testimony of a DEA agent who told
local activists that he would respect California's medical cannabis
laws. DEA agent Dan Tuey was permitted to take the stand to
painstakingly document over 3,000 plants and cuttings seized from the
warehouse, a process that appeared to exhaust jurors. Defense attorneys
doggedly challenged the plant counts, but were admonished by the judge
for commenting on the government's evidece.

*Divide And Conquer*

The DEA contends that Rosenthal is using Prop. 215 as a smokescreen for
drug profiteering, and prosecutors trying the case have attempted to
turn growers and club operators against each other.

When Hayes fled to Canada, his medical marijuana club underwent the same
upheaval that many businesses endure when a founder suddenly leaves. But
prosecutors moved to take advantage of the turmoil. ''The feds are using
us as an example to scare all these other dispensers of medical cannabis
into submission,'' said Ken Hayes, who is seeking political asylum in
Canada. ''I didn't want to be used as a federal government trophy.''

Former club employee Robert Martin, who was forced to testify under a
grant of immunity, alleged that Hayes drew down the club's accounts to
pay for his exile. Bills went unpaid and the power was shut off. Martin,
who now runs another medical marijuana club, began covering expenses out
of his own pocket, but testified that he wrote Rosenthal bad checks for
his plants because he believed Rosenthal was attempting to take over the
operation. The prosecution then produced an unsigned letter to
Rosenthal, seized from Watts' computer. The letter suggests that
Rosenthal was selling bug-infested plants as an act of ''willfull
sabotage'' to infect other growers and corner the medical marijuana
market, a charge Rosenthal denies.

Both Rosenthal and Watts discount the government's claim that there was
a power struggle at the club.

Rosenthal says he was simply concerned that the club, ''continue to take
care of patients and supply them with marijuana.'' Watts says the Harm
Reduction Center was being run by a board of directors that San
Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan had encouraged to avoid
management disputes.

''I never intended to run the club,'' said Watts, who said he was in
charge of building maintenance and overseeing the club's counseling

Jane Weirick, a long-time medical marijuana activist and consultant to
Bay Area medical cannabis dispensaries, said the Harm Reduction Center
simply suffered from a lack of leadership. ''There was no one really
qualified to run the place and we were concerned that the people who had
legal control of it were becoming an embarrassment to the city,'' said
Weirick. ''It was a very big ship with no rudder in an ocean full of

Leno, a former San Francisco city supervisor, believes that that the
city should consider growing and distributing its own medical cannabis.
Leno authored a successful ballot measure last November which directed
the city to study the project. Some patients are frustrated that the
measure did not compel the city to act, but Leno says a select committee
of city supervisors is pursuing the issue.

''The question is how to give patients access to their medicine if the
federal government is going to continue their assault on those growers
who, at great risk, attempt to provide patients with their physician
recommended medicine," said Leno.

Pubdate: Fri, 31 Jan 2003