Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Marcelo Rodriguez and Daryl Strickland, Special to The Times
Published: June 04, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Los Angeles Times
Contact: [email protected]
Jurors had said they would not have convicted Ed Rosenthal at his federal trial in February if they had known he was helping patients in Oakland under a 1996 state law.
San Francisco -- In a ruling that stunned both the prosecutors and defense attorneys, a federal judge allowed legalized marijuana advocate Ed Rosenthal to walk free Wednesday.
Rosenthal, convicted in February of growing more than 100 marijuana plants in an Oakland warehouse, has become the centerpiece of a growing national debate about medical marijuana and a battle between the federal government and the nine states in which it is legal.
Rosenthal said he had legal standing to do so under Proposition 215, a 1996 voter-approved measure that legalized medical marijuana in the state. And he said he was acting as an agent for the city of Oakland's medical marijuana program.
But during the trial, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that Rosenthal's defense was not admissible in federal court because U.S. law does not distinguish between medicinal and recreational uses of marijuana.
The case received a great deal of attention. Immediately after the conviction, a majority of jurors said they would have voted to acquit Rosenthal had they known the plants were to be used medicinally to aid, among others, cancer and AIDS patients.
In his sentencing, Breyer made clear that the Rosenthal case presented "extraordinary circumstances," which warranted a one-day sentence, with credit for time served. Rosenthal spent a day in jail after his arrest by federal drug enforcement officers last year.
"Believing he was an official of the city of Oakland is not relative to his guilt or innocence," Breyer said. "But it is relevant to sentencing. It's erroneous, but reasonable for him to believe that he was protected by a City Council ordinance."
Moreover, eight of the 12 jurors also asked the judge in a May 27 letter to Breyer "to bring the law into alignment with morality and ethics" by sparing Rosenthal prison time "because we convicted him without having all of the evidence."
Breyer's ruling, though a clear personal victory for Rosenthal, contained an element of defeat for proponents of medicinal marijuana.
"This case could not and should not happen again," Breyer said in the packed courtroom. "Others are now on notice that a state or a municipality cannot ignore federal marijuana laws."
Nevertheless, the ruling was celebrated joyously by dozens of Rosenthal supporters. The pungent aroma of marijuana could clearly be smelled immediately outside Breyer's courtroom, where some 200 medical marijuana advocates awaited the sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Atty. George Bevan, who prosecuted the case, had asked the judge for a minimum sentence of five years, arguing that Rosenthal's pot-growing operation was not a "humanitarian" operation, but a "cash cow."
"He put out thousands of plants," said Bevan, who refused questions from the media and rushed out of the courtroom after the hearing. "I don't think anyone disagrees with helping sick people, but as far as we're concerned, it was a business."
Standing in a parking lot across the street from the San Francisco Federal Building, Rosenthal, in a fiery speech, claimed victory. The 59-year-old self-professed "Guru of Ganja" called Breyer and the prosecutors "corrupt" and demanded their immediate resignation.
"Judge Breyer made me a felon," Rosenthal said, "and that is unacceptable."
Rosenthal and his defense attorney, Dennis Riordan, said they would appeal the original conviction.
"This is Day One in the crusade to bring down the marijuana laws, all the marijuana laws," Rosenthal told his cheering supporters. "These laws are doomed."
Times staff writer Daryl Strickland and Marcelo Rodriguez contributed to this report.
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