For years, Somayah Kambui argued that she had a medical right to use marijuana--a drug of choice for many like her who suffer from the debilitating and painful disease sickle cell anemia.
So the 51-year-old founder of a cannabis club, Crescent Alliance Self Help for Sickle Cell, said she got a doctor's prescription and began growing her personal stash of marijuana in her South Los Angeles backyard.
But police officers challenged Kambui's claim in October when they raided her garden and confiscated, by their estimate, a stash that was somewhat more than personal: 200 pounds of marijuana plants.
"She had a farm back there," said Deputy Dist. Atty. John Kildebeck.
Kambui was arrested, spent 60 days in jail awaiting trial and now--because of two prior felony convictions--faces the possibility of life in prison under the three-strikes law. The two previous convictions, involving illegal-firearms possession and explosives, came in the 1970s when she was active in the Black Panther Party.
Fearing the worst, she appeared Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, where prosecutor Kildebeck and Kambui's attorney both called for a delay in the start of her trial.
Robert A. Welbourn, Kambui's court-appointed attorney, told his client she would be taking a chance if she went ahead with a trial so soon. Kambui refused his advice and asked the judge for a speedy trial. He complied, setting a Jan. 18 date.
"Let things fall where they need to fall," Kambui said later.
Her case is another test of Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana initiative passed by California voters in 1996. The measure allowed medical use of marijuana but did not set limits on how much could be grown or consumed--a gray area that has surfaced in several criminal cases.
Last year federal agents shut down a West Hollywood cannabis club, uprooting 400 plants, seizing indoor growing lights and hauling off computers listing the names and medical histories of the center's patients who allegedly used marijuana to ease the pain or help with nausea caused by chemotherapy or AIDS.
California is among a handful of states that legalized medical use of marijuana, putting it in conflict with federal statutes that make pot illegal for cultivation, sale and use. That dispute escalated this year with a U.S Supreme Court ruling that upheld federal law.
Kambui said her use of marijuana eases the pain of sickle cell anemia, a disease in which the blood cells become deformed when oxygen levels are low, creating painful blockage of blood vessels and causing organ damage.
Kambui said the marijuana grown in her backyard--on a block of single-family homes and apartments near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum--was not for her use alone but was to be shared with the dozen or so members of her club who also suffer from sickle cell anemia. She said the effects of marijuana were far less harmful than the morphine she had been prescribed.
But since 1998, she said, she has been under scrutiny because of her plants. Police seized her stock that year, and she spent two weeks in jail. She beat that case, however, and her confiscated plants were returned.
Her club continued to operate without problems until last year, when police, with helicopters hovering overhead, searched her two-story home.
"I was sitting having a cup of coffee with a little hemp oil when they broke down the door," she said. "I said, 'I'm legal, I have a doctor's note and I'm compliant with the law.' "
She said the officers told her they thought she had too much to be for personal use only.
"I said 'OK, why don't you take what you think I don't need and leave me the rest?' " she recalled. "They took it all."
She disputed law enforcement's estimate of her stash.
"That is 200 pounds wet, with dirt and stalks," she said.
Kildebeck said he doubted that Kambui would be tried as a third-strike defendant because the current charge does not involve violent conduct. "We're trying to do the right thing too," he said.
Her neighbors also seemed sympathetic.
Mario Mercado said Kambui should be allowed to use marijuana if it is for her personal use and not for sale in the neighborhood.