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The 'Guru of Ganja' Gets a Day in Jail

A judge frees activist who has become a symbol in a clash with the federal government over California's medical marijuana laws.

June 05, 2003|Eric Bailey and Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Ed Rosenthal has the look of a high school biology teacher and the resume of a stoner. For years he has written passionately about marijuana for High Times magazine, authored books about pot and served as a high priest of the medical marijuana movement.

On Wednesday, he added a new chapter.

The 59-year-old pot activist entered federal court in San Francisco facing years behind bars for cultivating more than 100 marijuana plants for a Bay Area medical pot dispensary. He walked out a free man.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer brushed aside a plea from prosecutors for a 6 1/2-year sentence, declaring that Rosenthal should spend just one day in jail. He then waived the sentence for time already served after Rosenthal's arrest last year by drug agents.

Breyer cited the "extraordinary circumstances" of the case, including eight jurors who said after the trial that they would have acquitted Rosenthal had he been allowed to present evidence that his pot plants were intended for medical use.

The judge's decision was met by wild cheering and applause in the courtroom.

"I take responsibility for my actions that bring me here today. I took these actions because my conscience led me to help people who are suffering," Rosenthal said. "These laws are doomed."

It brought an end to a topsy-turvy legal case that thrust Rosenthal into the national spotlight. He became a symbol of the ongoing clash over California's medical marijuana laws and the uncompromising prohibitions of the federal government.

"I think Ed becomes a little more of a folk hero," said Mike Corral, co-founder of a Santa Cruz medical pot cooperative that drew national attention after a celebrated drug bust led the City Council to rush to its defense. "It really doesn't change anything in terms of the law. But it's great for Ed and gives some hope to the movement."

Others were more circumspect. Richard Cowan, editor and publisher of MarijuanaNews.Com and former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Rosenthal's one-day sentence does not undo stiff federal sentences handed down to other medical marijuana patients in California.

"I'm delighted for Ed," Cowan said. "But this doesn't do anything for any of the others."

Tom Riley, a spokesman for the president's Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the government would not be deterred from continuing to aggressively prosecute pot cases. He said Rosenthal and many others are "cynically using the suffering of sick people to advance their agenda."

"His mission is to legalize marijuana," Riley said. "That is his religion. Let's not portray him as a social worker."

A 'Cash Cow'

Assistant U.S. Atty. George Bevan argued that Rosenthal's pot-growing operation was not a "humanitarian" enterprise, but a "cash cow."

"He put out thousands of plants," Bevan said. "I don't think anyone disagrees with helping sick people, but as far as we're concerned, it was a business."

With the faint scent of cannabis wafting outside the courtroom, Rosenthal walked into the streets to cheers from a throng of about 150 supporters. His wife and two grown children joined Rosenthal at a victory rally in a parking lot across the street from the San Francisco Federal Building.

A woman in a wheelchair held up a sign reading, "That's my medicine they want to take away," and led chants of "Ed! Ed! Ed!" when Rosenthal took the makeshift podium.

Rosenthal said his triumph represented "Day 1 in the crusade to bring down the marijuana laws, all the marijuana laws.... All marijuana should be legalized."

Despite the lenient sentence, the self-professed "Guru of Ganja" called Judge Breyer and prosecutors "corrupt" and demanded their resignation. Rosenthal has appealed his conviction.

His lawyers had tried to argue during trial that Rosenthal was protected by California's voter-approved Prop. 215, the state's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, and was shielded as well because the city of Oakland had deputized him to grow pot for patients.

But the judge did not let the jury hear those arguments. They found Rosenthal guilty of marijuana cultivation. Several jurors later said they would have acquitted him if they had known he was growing the plants for patients.

In a May 27 letter to Breyer, eight of the 12 jurors asked the judge "to bring the law into alignment with morality and ethics" by sparing Rosenthal prison time "because we convicted him without having all of the evidence."

Last week, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer also asked Breyer for leniency in Rosenthal's sentencing, citing the protections he could claim under California's medical marijuana law.

"This is huge," said San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan. "They [federal prosecutors] thought that if they could stop medical marijuana here, they could stop it anywhere."

Rosenthal had mounted an aggressive public relations effort to draw attention to his case. Some activists said that effort paid off.

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