Medi-Pot Gains Some Federal Court Support

November 26, 2003
By Press

Probation for Los Angeles Trio Indicates Lost Battle in Government War on Drugs

By John Ryan

Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES – The road to recovery will be a long one for Scott Imler, who next week will undergo surgery to have a cancerous tumor and part of his left lung removed. But Imler will be entering the operating room, then recuperating, without a prison term hanging over his head. On Monday, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz gave probation instead of prison time to Imler and two fellow officers of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, which tried to ease the suffering of AIDS and cancer patients through medicinal marijuana. Though the center was legal under state law, federal officials shut down the West Hollywood operation in 2001. Matz did not mince words as he brought an end to a controversial local chapter in the government’s war on drugs. “This entire prosecution was badly misguided, given the huge scope of federal jurisdiction and the great prevalence of serious crime in our community,” Matz said to Imler, who was founder and president of the Cannabis Resource Center. “To allocate the resources of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. attorney’s office to this case, at least as to you and your co-defendants, baffles me, disturbs me.” Mumbles of “yes” and “that’s right” could be heard in the emotional courtroom packed with supporters of the three defendants. Matz gave sentences of one-year probation and community service to Imler, center vice president Jeffrey Farrington and treasurer Jeff Yablan. In March, all three pleaded guilty to criminal charges of maintaining a drug establishment. The defendants faced prison terms of two years or longer under sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors opposed defense requests to deviate from federal guidelines and place any defendants on probation. “Perhaps a case like this will cause the Justice Department to reconsider charging individuals who only pursue the distribution of marijuana for humanitarian reasons,” Imler’s attorney, Ron Kaye of Pasadena’s Kaye, McLane & Bednarski, said after the proceedings. “I think that history will judge the prosecution of those who only want to help the sick as inhumane.” However, given a Supreme Court ruling that federal drug laws trump state law, more medical-marijuana prosecutions are possible, Kaye added. The lead prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, declined to comment in detail on Matz’s ruling or on criticisms of the prosecution. “We are pleased that the case was resolved without trial and that the defendants cooperated with the government,” Fitzgerald said. “We will continue to enforce the law,” Fitzgerald said. Imler co-wrote Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which California voters passed in 1996. The law protects medical-marijuana users from state prosecution if a licensed doctor prescribes the drug. Imler founded the Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood shortly after the initiative passed. The center treated 1,000 patients suffering from chronic illnesses, including AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, arthritis and other ailments. Federal drug agents raided the center in October 2001, seizing marijuana, files and computers. In sentencing papers filed with the court, prosecutors argued that federal law should apply to the center’s activities. The government cited United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001), in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the medical-necessity exception to federal drug laws. In court Monday, Fitzgerald told Matz that prosecutors and the court had a duty to abide by the laws and guidelines established by Congress. But Kaye told Matz that his client was an extraordinary person who dedicated his life to helping people in need. “He is a credit to this movement, and he is a credit to this society,” Kaye said. In his sentencing papers, Kaye argued that the cannabis center operated under the auspices of Proposition 215 and that officers worked closely and with the approval of state, county and local governments. The center was well-known for its attention to detail and the rigorous steps it took to make sure that marijuana was not abused and was given only those who suffered from chronic pain, Kaye argued. “No matter how much the government tries to impute some criminal intent on Mr. Imler through his work with [the center], it just is not there,” Kaye wrote in his sentencing paper. Rather than file a separate sentencing argument, Larry Bakman, attorney for Yablan, asked the court to consider Kaye’s arguments when determining Yablan’s sentence, “with the only distinction being that Jeff Yablan currently is diagnosed with and undergoes treatment for HIV.” “[P]lacing any one of these defendants in prison for any length of time would serve absolutely no legitimate purpose,” Bakman wrote to the court. Farrington, represented by Charles Pereyra-Suarez, placed his papers regarding sentencing under seal. Kaye filed with the court several letters of support of Imler and the cannabis center from patients, relatives of patients and government officials. State Sen. John Vasconcellos wrote that he was “personally stunned” when Imler was arrested. “I knew him to be the single most diligent person involved in the cannabis clubs throughout California,” Vasconcellos wrote. Among others, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and West Hollywood Mayor Jeffrey Prang wrote letters of support. The letters had a big impact on Matz, who read aloud portions of virtually every one before sentencing the defendants. Bakman and Pereyra-Suarez handed Matz additional letters about their clients, which he took and read silently to himself in court. Matz told the court that he often gets letters for cases that come before him. “But I don’t think I’ve gotten letters more important than these in setting forth some of the bases for my finding,” Matz said. Matz said that the cannabis center was a model for good-faith efforts to comply with Proposition 215. In reducing sentences for violations of federal law, Matz ruled that the lesser-harms doctrine applied to the three defendants for their efforts to ease suffering in the community. “Sometimes, a defendant commits a crime in order to avoid a perceived greater crime,” Matz said. Matz also rejected the government’s argument that Imler could be cared for in prison and that his illness was not extraordinary. When this issue arose in court, several spectators laughed or grunted at the government’s position. Matz said that he did not know the prosecutors but that he doubted they had any direct experience with cancer. Nevertheless, Matz credited the government for conceding all along that the three defendants had good intentions in their efforts through the center. In addition, earlier this month, prosecutors requested that Matz reduce the defendants’ sentences for their cooperation with the successful prosecution of Todd McCormick and Peter McWilliams, marijuana growers and distributors who claimed their activities were for medicinal purposes. The three defendants testified before a grand jury about conversations in which McCormick and McWilliams suggested plans to have the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center provide a legal shield for their drug distribution. When addressing the court Monday, Imler thanked Fitzgerald and the lead Drug Enforcement Administration agent assigned to the case. “They always treated us with dignity and respect,” Imler told Matz. Those remarks, Matz responded, were another example of Imler’s “truly admirable personality.”