New York Times
Sunday, November 7, 1999
Los Angeles Drug Case Bars Medical Marijuana Defense
ANGELES -- In a July 1997 raid, police officers and federal agents here
found more than 4,000 marijuana plants in a Bel-Air mansion known as
the castle, near the home of Ronald Reagan, whose administration created the
"zero tolerance" approach to illegal drugs.
With a trial scheduled to begin Nov. 16, the case has turned into a test
of judicial tolerance for a defense strategy based on marijuana's
Two defendants, Todd McCormick and Peter McWilliams, advocate legalizing
marijuana for medical use and have used it to treat their own
ailments: McCormick for pain from cancer treatments that fused several of
his vertebrae, and McWilliams for nausea from drugs he takes to treat AIDS.
Saying the plants were for personal use and research on a book about
medical marijuana, they contend their actions were legal under
Proposition 215, the ballot measure approved by California voters in 1996
allowing patients to smoke marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.
Federal prosecutors, however, sought and received an order from a
federal judge barring the defendants from telling the jury that side of the
story, even offering to drop some of the counts against them to keep those
issues out of the courtroom.
In a ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge George King prohibited the
defendants from making any reference to Proposition 215, the purported
medical benefits of marijuana or even the federal government's own
experimental program, now closed, providing marijuana to patients.
The defendants say they are not being allowed to defend themselves.
"I'm devastated," McWilliams said in an interview on Friday.
"I can't even present my case to the jury. We just have to sit there
and listen to the evidence, and we've already admitted everything.
Obviously, the federal government is stonewalling any discussion of medical marijuana
in any forum."
McWilliams, a best-selling self-help author, McCormick, who founded a
club that distributes marijuana for medical purposes, and another
defendant, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, were among nine people charged with
conspiring to grow and sell marijuana. They face minimum prison
sentences of 10 years if convicted. Three other defendants have pleaded
In court filings, prosecutors have said the medical issues are
irrelevant to the charges, and if allowed into evidence, "will serve
only to confuse and mislead the jury." Further, they maintain that if
the defendants want to change the government's position on marijuana,
they should petition the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Whether the defendants like it or not, the proper challenge is
through the regulatory process," Mary Fulginiti, a prosecutor, said in
court last month.
The trial comes at a time of increasing conflict in America's
relationship with marijuana. On Tuesday, voters in Maine approved an
initiative allowing medical use, joining six Western states. A report
commissioned by the Clinton administration concluded earlier this year that marijuana's
active ingredients were useful in treating pain and nausea, though the
benefits were limited by the smoke's toxic effects.
And in September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a
cannabis club in Oakland to resume providing marijuana to patients,
in the face of an injunction from the Clinton administration.
Yet marijuana remains classified by Congress as a Schedule I
controlled substance, putting it in the company of heroin and LSD. That
raised a central question: whether the defendants could assert a
"medical necessity defense," maintaining that they broke the law
because their health required it.
Prosecutors contended that marijuana's Schedule I status
precluded such an argument, because it legally defined the drug as having no
legitimate use. But defense lawyers maintained that the appeals court
decision in the Oakland case opened the door to such a defense.
Federal prosecutors are so intent on keeping medical issues out of the
courtroom in the case that they agreed to dismiss charges of intent to
distribute if the judge barred the medical-necessity defense. Under the law,
the defendants could have been allowed to assert that Proposition 215 and
their medical conditions contributed to their "state of mind" if
they were prosecuted on the intent charges. But with manufacturing charges,
state of mind is not relevant.
In his ruling, King said the medical-necessity defense would be
unavailable to the defendants because allowing them to use it would
explicitly contradict a congressional determination. Judge King found that
the appeals court ruling in Oakland did not directly address the issue, and
he rejected admission of Proposition 215 and medical benefits of marijuana
because the government agreed to limit its case to simple manufacturing
The number of marijuana plants, which rose to more than 6,000
after the discovery of other growing sites, has led to charges that the
defendants sought to reap profits by selling to cannabis clubs, an
enterprise not sanctioned by Proposition 215, which allows possession in
"personal use amounts."
According to court documents, the two men signed a detailed agreement on
financing and managing cultivation sites, distribution plans and profit
sharing. McWilliams is accused of approaching an employee of a cannabis club
with an offer to sell it marijuana, saying that he wanted to become
the "Bill Gates of medical marijuana."
The case has become a celebrated one with legalization advocates. The
actor Woody Harrelson, who was once arrested for planting hemp seeds in a
ceremonial protest, put up McCormick's $500,000 bail, and Alan Isaacman, the
lawyer who defended Larry Flynt on pornography charges, signed on to defend
McCormick made his case on the television show "Politically
Incorrect." And a fugitive in the case, Renee Boje, who was hired by
McCormick to sketch the plants for his book, is profiled in the December
issue of Glamour magazine under the headline "Drug Queenpin or Innocent
Legalization advocates say the results of the case will serve as a
barometer of the federal government's willingness to prosecute medical marijuana
cases aggressively in states where medical use is legal.
"To some degree, the outcome of this case will shape the extent to
which the federal government proceeds with additional federal prosecutions
for offenses which are no longer illegal under state law," said Keith
Stroup, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform
of Marijuana Laws, a lobbyist for marijuana legalization.
"If it's a clean victory, it will encourage them to use federal