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O.C. Cannabis Club Activist Found Guilty

November 20, 1998|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case being closely watched by marijuana activists across Southern California, an Orange County jury Thursday convicted the co-founder of a local cannabis club of selling the drug, but the verdicts fell short of a full victory sought by prosecutors.

The jury of six women and six men took just over a day to convict Marvin Chavez, 42, in a case that could clarify who is entitled to the legal protection that a care-giver is allowed under Proposition 215, the state's medicinal marijuana initiative passed two years ago.

The district attorney's office portrayed Chavez as a sophisticated drug dealer operating under the guise of Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana in the state.

But jurors declined to convict him on five counts of felony marijuana sales in cases where Chavez provided the drug to those he believed were treating serious illnesses. Instead, the jury convicted him on misdemeanor charges of "giving away marijuana."

In addition, jurors convicted Chavez on two felony counts of selling marijuana to undercover investigators from the Orange County district attorney's office and one felony count of transporting the drug by mail. But he was acquitted on two other charges related to his sale to the investigators.

Chavez, who is free on $100,000 bail, will be sentenced Jan. 8. He faces up to seven years in jail.

His case, one of a handful of medicinal marijuana convictions in the state, has become a rallying cry for some supporters of Proposition 215, who have been particularly critical of the undercover operation that resulted in some of the charges.

Moreover, it underscores the legal maze created with the passage of Proposition 215. Interpreting and enforcing the vaguely worded initiative has been left largely to local authorities across the state. Several Bay Area counties have said they will not prosecute cases involving medical use of marijuana, while Orange County has been aggressive in prosecuting such cases.

"It is a crazy quilt criteria that changes with landscape, political figures and county lines," said J. David Nick, a San Francisco attorney who represents Chavez and other marijuana activists. Chavez argued that he was simply providing marijuana to sick people, as the proposition allows.

But the trial judge ruled that Chavez could not use the law as a defense because he does not fit the definition of a "primary care-giver," who under the law is protected against prosecution along with the patients themselves.

Attorneys said the case could eventually set a clearer standard for what a care-giver is and whether cannabis club operators such as Chavez are protected under Proposition 215.

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, who has declined to file charges in medicinal marijuana cases, said the fact that the Orange County jury reduced some felony charges to misdemeanors might indicate that they believe Chavez was actually trying to help patients.

The jurors were rushed out of the Westminster courthouse after the ruling and could not be reached for comment. But Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Carl Armbrust expressed satisfaction with the decisions. "It's a reasonable verdict," he said.

Chavez was one of several marijuana activists who founded the Garden Grove-based Doctor, Patient, Nurse Support Group as a way to provide what they term "natural medicine" to people in need.

In May, David Lee Herrick, another member of the club, was convicted on two counts of felony marijuana sale and sentenced to four years in prison.

Chavez first came under suspicion of authorities late last year after another member of his cannabis club was arrested for possession of marijuana.

Chavez was charged as a co-conspirator in the case. He was freed on his own recognizance on condition that he would cease disbursing the drug. But undercover investigators posing as seriously ill patients later received marijuana from Chavez as part of a sting operation.

"Unfortunately, he thumbed his nose at the judge and began distributing again," Armbrust said.

But defense attorneys said prosecutors' undercover operation amounted to entrapment.

"It is egregious the extent the Orange County district attorney's office went to catch Mr. Chavez," said attorney James Silva, another of Chavez's lawyers. "Essentially, they painted the undercover investigator as a walking time bomb of pain. So how could Mr. Chavez not feel compassionate for this person who was crying out to him?"

Silva noted that Chavez's cannabis club, which has nearly 200 members, provided marijuana for illnesses including AIDS, cancer and chronic pain.

Outside the courtroom, an emotional Chavez vowed to continue his fight.

"I am still here for what I stand," said Chavez. "I never hid behind the law. I stood in front of the law"

Dozens of Chavez's supporters in the court were disheartened by the decision.

Eloise Batista, 50, a member of the Garden Grove cannabis club who said she takes marijuana to ease chronic pain, expressed concern that the verdict will force her to purchase the drug from street dealers.

"I don't want to be out there with the criminal elements," a teary Batista said. "I don't want to be a criminal."

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