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Sheriff Is Reluctant Witness in Drug Case

Court: Defendant says Baca told him 'it was OK' to distribute medical pot; Baca denies it.

September 26, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man charged with growing and selling marijuana rested his case in a preliminary hearing Wednesday after calling a single defense witness: Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

Steve Corchado said the 26 plants police found in his home in October 2001 were for medical use by himself and members of his Santa Monica cannabis club. He said Baca told him "that it was OK" to distribute the drug if he followed California law that decriminalized marijuana use for medical purposes.

Baca, who had tried to avoid testifying, acknowledged that he posed for a photograph with Corchado at a West Hollywood festival, but denied Corchado's account of the conversation.

"I do not conduct office business in a parade atmosphere at a booth," Baca testified.

In an interview later Wednesday, Baca said he supports cannabis clubs if they are well-run, lawful and supervised.

California voters approved an initiative legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes by a margin of 56%.

"It's a social, human issue of great importance to all Americans," Baca said.

"I have great empathy for people who are HIV-positive and who are on the slope of death. We have to defer to the medical community ... and we as law enforcement need to remain on the table of reason and see how the use of marijuana could save lives."

Baca said Corchado tried to use the Sheriff's Department to justify illegal behavior.

"What I'm saying, without calling someone a liar, is that it didn't happen," he said. "I would never condone any illegal act in any circumstances."

Several medical marijuana activists and users came to watch the preliminary hearing Wednesday in the Santa Monica courthouse. One wore a T-shirt that read "Access Now" and had a picture of a marijuana plant over a red cross.

Corchado, who was ordered to stand trial after the hearing, is not charged with using marijuana for his own medical purposes, but for cultivating and selling it. If convicted, he could be sentenced to four years and eight months.

"He was selling marijuana under the guise of it being a medical situation," contended the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Wendy Moss.

Corchado, 53, said he suffers from asbestos in his lungs, which he said causes nausea, diarrhea and shortness of breath. Moss said he has failed to produce proof that he is ill or that a doctor has prescribed marijuana for him.

Proposition 215 gives seriously ill patients or their caregivers the right to obtain marijuana for pain relief with a doctor's prescription. Two years later, Corchado opened the Comfort Care Group and said he has since provided marijuana to hundreds of patients, many with AIDS or cancer.

But in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal law prohibits giving marijuana to sick people, and federal authorities shut down several cannabis clubs in California.

Acting on a tip, an undercover Santa Monica police officer bought marijuana from Corchado after getting a note from the doctor he recommended, prosecutors said.

Police arrested Corchado and searched his condo, finding 26 marijuana plants and drug-making materials, a credit card machine, and a product list showing the names, prices and quantities for the medical marijuana, court documents say.

Defense attorney David Nick said Corchado "received the green light from Sheriff Baca." Had Corchado been advised not to continue running the club, he would have closed down the club himself, Nick said. The preliminary hearing was held after Corchado, who is out on bail, turned down an offer to plead guilty and agree not to sell marijuana in exchange for no jail time. Two other defendants in the case pleaded no contest and were placed on probation.

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