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Orange County | Dana Parsons

People's Will Is Clear, if Not Laws

September 25, 2002|Dana Parsons

Hagen Place, a nondescript two-story apartment building on a corner of 3rd Street in Laguna Beach, would seem just what California voters had in mind when they passed the medical-marijuana initiative in 1996.

Laguna Beach police may beg to differ.

Named after a local doctor and gay activist who died of the complications of AIDS in 1991, Hagen Place has 24 apartments for people who are HIV-positive. Many people with HIV have said that marijuana helps relieve nausea they sometimes get from their medications.

And, by a 56% to 44% vote, Californians six years ago endorsed the use of doctor-prescribed marijuana to relieve pain.

That, Ross Embry says, is why he grows and smokes marijuana.

It's also why Embry, 53, now faces a court date next month.

About 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 17, police entered through a patio screen door in his apartment and arrested him for cultivating marijuana and possessing it for sale.

In a surprise, Embry says he wasn't surprised. Nor, even, all that angry.

"I'm not furious [over the arrest], because it's not unexpected," Embry says. "Everyone who's media-savvy knows the [medical-marijuana] law is capriciously enforced and there's great vacillation on the part of so many communities all over California on how to prosecute and handle these cases."

Embry says he has been using marijuana for 18 months or so to counter nausea that resulted after he altered his medication. He says he gives pot to several other HIV-positive residents in the building but doesn't sell it.

Laguna Beach police might have other ideas. Sgt. Jason Kravetz says police confiscated a large-enough number of plants to arouse suspicion. "It's a quantity we don't come across all too often," Kravetz says. He confirmed Embry's assessment of about 2 pounds in ready-to-use marijuana but says there was an additional 20 pounds in plant form.

Embry is right about one thing: The medical-marijuana issue is far from settled in California.

The state Supreme Court ruled in July that Californians can't be prosecuted in state court if they have a doctor's recommendation to smoke pot for pain. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has said that nothing in federal law permits its use.

The most extreme example of a city's support of the initiative came last week when Santa Cruz City Council members drew ailing residents' names from a hat and symbolically dispensed pot prescriptions to them.

Embry concedes he has only a doctor's letter that acknowledges his marijuana use but that doesn't specifically prescribe it. That is but another flaw in the law, Embry says--the unwillingness of some doctors to put their name on a pot prescription.

And he's not blind to people trying to circumvent Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative.

"Obviously, there are people who are using the medical-marijuana issue as a ploy to market it," Embry says. "That's not out of the realm of possibility at all."

As for his supply, Embry says, "Yes, I did cultivate it. I didn't have it for sale. I never sold any of it. Sure, I've got friends in the building who are in the same boat [with pain]. They have to buy on the street from people with shady connections. Of course, they'd rather get it from someone in the building."

Embry says the cops couldn't have been nicer and told him his case may or may not reach court.

"We don't take any sides with the medical-marijuana issue," Kravetz says. "The courts have asked us not to be judge and jury when we're out in the field."

Embry says he's prepared to fight. "I don't look at myself as being victimized," he says. "All institutions are flawed. We have the ability in this country to change flawed institutions."


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He may be reached by calling (714) 966-7821; writing to The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at

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