Saturday, January 17, 1998

Medical Marijuana Club Left Low and Dry

Law: Founder no longer can distribute pot after arrest. Members say they'll have to turn to black market.

By TINA NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer

SANTA ANA--Patients who obtained pot from an Orange County medical marijuana group say they will be forced to deal on the black market now that the leader of their cannabis club has been charged with multiple felonies and ordered to stop making deliveries.

Marvin Edward Chavez, the vocal, 43-year-old founder of the Orange County Cannabis Co-op, was arrested this week at his Santa Ana home by district attorney investigators. He was charged with eight felony counts, one for conspiracy to sell marijuana and seven counts of selling marijuana, some dating back to last March.

At his arraignment Friday, Chavez pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on his own recognizance, on the condition that he stop distributing marijuana to others. The judge allowed him to continue to use pot for his degenerative spinal disease.

"Enough is enough," said a 39-year-old former buyer who uses marijuana for his glaucoma. "There are patients that are going to have to break the law and look for medical marijuana in the back alleys."

Chavez has been a strong advocate of supplying marijuana to indigent patients who need it for medical purposes. He has also insisted in the past that he does not require payment for the drug, but does accept "donations."

Chavez, who could not be reached for comment Friday, began operating the medical marijuana co-op in 1996, shortly after California voters passed Proposition 215, which legalized the use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription.

His arrest comes a week after federal authorities filed civil suits seeking to close six similar operations in Northern California.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Carl Armbrust, who filed the charges and got a judge from Municipal Court in Santa Ana to issue the arrest warrant, said state laws forbid the selling of marijuana and that Chavez's acceptance of "donations" is just that.

"He can use the drug for his own medical reasons, but he cannot sell it, and that means not taking donations," Armbrust said.

Chavez's lawyer, Bob Kennedy, said donations were accepted because supplying the substance can get costly.

"The marijuana generally is not provided to the cannabis clubs for free," Kennedy said. "Taking donations was the only way they could subsist to facilitate the needs of these patients. It is not a profit motivation."

Co-op member William Britt, who uses pot for epilepsy and other medical conditions, said Chavez provided marijuana to poor patients for free. Patients also were required to show a doctor's prescription to obtain marijuana.

"There are going to be a lot of people who don't know where to go to get marijuana," Britt said. "Marvin did a lot of the deliveries. But people who can't leave their homes are really going to be hard pressed."