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California and the West

Ex-Candidate Faces Trial in Medical Marijuana Case

Courts: Libertarian entrant in last year's governor race claims that smoking pot has controlled his rare cancer.

April 15, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Before the bust, Steve Kubby's claim to fame was political trivia at best: Just who was last year's Libertarian candidate for governor?

Then came the January day that narcotics officers raided Kubby's home on a scenic slope near the Squaw Valley ski resort. Agents confiscated 265 marijuana plants growing in the basement and arrested the politician and his wife.

The drug case has thrust Kubby, who said he smokes pot daily to control a rare form of cancer, into the forefront of the roiling battle over medical marijuana. It comes at a pivotal juncture in the fight.

Last month, a federal advisory panel declared that pot has therapeutic merits for patients with AIDS or cancer. Meanwhile, advocates are hopeful that last year's Democratic political sweep in California--and the departure of Republican drug warrior Dan Lungren as attorney general--will yield a friendlier environment for patients who smoke marijuana.

That hasn't been the case even with approval of Proposition 215, California's landmark 1996 medical marijuana initiative. Despite the new law, drug agents closed cannabis clubs in numerous cities. Overall, marijuana arrests statewide jumped to a record 57,677 in 1997, the law's first year of life.

Dozens of people have tried to use the law as a shield against prosecution, but few have succeeded. Kubby's case promises an unusual test. Although other patients say the drug helps them cope with illness, Kubby goes farther. Marijuana, he contends, has kept him alive.

Kubby was diagnosed in the 1970s with a type of cancer that attacks the adrenal glands and typically kills within five years. Early on, he suffered through operations, chemotherapy and radiation. But for the last 20 years his most regular form of treatment has been cannabis.

"As long as I have pot, I can lead an active and healthy life," said Kubby, 52. "I can be as physical and intellectual as any other adult. Without this medicine, I would drop dead in a few days."

Prosecutors aren't even debating Kubby's tale of herbal success. Instead, they contend the number of plants Kubby and his 33-year-old wife, Michele, cultivated were too many for personal medical use.

Authorities have charged the couple with possession of pot for sale as well as other felony counts for small amounts of hashish, psychedelic mushrooms and peyote buttons found at their home.

"If the jury feels 265 plants is sufficient for medical use, then justice is done," said Christopher Cattran, a Placer County deputy district attorney. "If they decide 265 plants is too much, then justice is done, too."

The case is set for trial May 18 in Auburn. Kubby refuses to plea bargain, though he could face a decade in prison if convicted on all charges. He claims he is a victim of political persecution by the district attorney and said his case will be "the Scopes monkey trial of medical marijuana," a pronouncement that has even some allies rolling their eyes.

In Kubby's corner is Dr. Vincent DeQuattro, a USC medical school professor.

A cardiologist who specializes in hypertension illnesses, DeQuattro treated Kubby more than two decades ago, but eventually referred him to cancer specialists in the Midwest and lost track of him. The doctor figured Kubby, like most others with the rare illness, had died.

Then he saw Kubby's picture--smiling and looking quite well--in the voters pamphlet for last November's election. DeQuattro said he was "flabbergasted Steve was still alive."

He contacted the politician and performed tests, discovering lethal levels of adrenal fluids--10 to 20 times normal--coursing through Kubby's system. Under such conditions a patient usually has blood pressure that skyrockets and faces the risk of heart attack or stroke. Kubby's system remains somehow in check.

"I have no other way to deduce but that marijuana is controlling it," said DeQuattro, who is continuing to study Kubby. "I've never prescribed medical marijuana, I'm not an advocate, I don't use it. But in some way his therapy has kept him alive."

Sophisticated Growing Area

Kubby said he began growing pot soon after voters approved the state's medical marijuana law, which he helped to promote. He developed a sophisticated little plantation in the basement of his sprawling rental house.

Though now stripped clean by drug agents, it once featured blowers, a carbon dioxide generator, special air filters and grow lights hard-wired to timers. At the time of the arrest, narcotics agents said, 107 plants were capable of producing smokable marijuana. The rest were immature plants, some just seedlings.

The bounty of his basement garden will be a key issue in his upcoming trial. During a preliminary hearing last month, a state drug agent testified that the size of Kubby's crop indicated he was operating a "commercial grow" that could have produced 20 pounds of finished product.

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