A Big Victory for Medical Marijuana In LA
March 17, 2002
Mikki Norris, YaHooka ForumsA Big Victory for Medical Marijuana In LA
A Big Victory for Medical Marijuana: Sister Somaya's Trial in Los Angeles
http://pub3.ezboard.com/fendingcannabisprohibitionantiwodwarriors.showMess age?topicID=39. topic
A Report by Mikki Norris
We left the courthouse on Friday afternoon after renowned Sickle Cell disease patient/activist Sister Somaya's court-appointed attorney had just begun his closing argument. The court reporter's hands were tired, and the judge had warned that he had to end the day at 4:30 no matter what. Somaya, had had her day in court. Southern California activists had been coming to the trial from the beginning and lending their support to Somaya and her attorney, Robert Welbourn. They were giving him quick lessons on the issue of hemp and cannabis.
On Monday, March 18, 2002, Sister Somaya Kambui was found "not guilty" of all charges in the Los Angeles County Court. This is a big win for medical marijuana proponents in many ways. She was facing 5 felony counts: 1) Cultivation of marijuana, 2) Possession of marijuana for sale, 3) Manufacturing a controlled substance (hash oil, based on trace amounts of THC found in her hand pressed hempseed oil), 4) Maintaining a place for distribution of a controlled substance, and 5) Sale or transportation of marijuana. If she had been found not guilty of these charges, the jury could still have convicted her of the lesser misdemeanor offenses of possession of concentrated cannabis or possession of over an ounce of marijuana.
I observed the trial from Wednesday through Friday of last week, and I'd like to share some of my impressions with you. We weren't sure how it went when court was adjourned for the weekend. Things were said through the course of the trial by witnesses, both hostile and friendly, that sounded like Sister Somaya had "supplied" others with marijuana, even sent it through the mail to Sickle Cell patients aligned with the Crescent Alliance for Self Help for Sickle Cell patients in other states. Police claimed to have seized 200 lbs of "wet" marijuana at her home in South Central LA. Sure they included stems, branches, roots, and dirt, but it still could have yielded a lot of marijuana for one person. Somaya stood it alone; she insisted on taking full responsibility for the cannabis, though she said she had a lot of help with the garden. She did not claim to be anyone's caregiver, though some testimony referred to her as such. She claimed to be the founder of this alliance of patients suffering from an extremely painful condition, Sickle Cell Disease. Only about half the diagnosed patients she was said to have helped had doctor's recommendations for cannabis. She kept the Crescent Alliance for Self Help cannabis center at her home, where she doled out hempseed oil and information, while growing her medical marijuana -- Nigretian Kif, she called it -- to be eaten or made into teas, tonics or tinctures. Some would be smoked in a crisis situation, but generally it was meant to be ingested.
We got to the trial on Wednesday afternoon. We missed most of the prosecution's case. We didn't hear the police describe how they found lots of marijuana at Somaya's house, so I can't report on what they said. Writer, researcher and activist Judy Osburn had been advising Welbourn on some of the issues when she could get a note passed by the bailiff. She was concerned that he was a competent attorney, but not very experienced when it came to medical marijuana cases. We arrived in time to hear a "co-founder" of the alliance, subpoenaed by the prosecution, testify against Somaya. That was sad. The witness, Anthony Wafer, obviously had a lot of love and respect for Somaya, but he reluctantly testified that he had helped her provide marijuana to Sickle Cell sufferers at times over the last 20 years. That testimony was not helpful, but it did start the information flowing about this debilitating disease and the constituency who benefited from Somaya's help. Most were poor and had no money for marijuana. The Alliance accepted donations from whoever would help.
The defense put forth two credible physicians, Dr. Lichtenstein from the Veterans Administration, and Dr. Eidelmann, a specialist in alternative medicine. They both were confident in their recommendations of marijuana for Somaya's Sickle Cell condition. Somaya got much more relief from marijuana than from morphine and Demerol, the two drugs most prescribed for her symptoms. The graphic descriptions of the disease was heart wrenching. She was a bona fide patient. No question about that.
Scott Imler testified as an expert, as he runs the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. He had written a declaration that he was called on to explain. He knew Somaya, he knew that it helped Sickle Cell patients, and he knew that she had grown marijuana. Meanwhile, Elvy Musikka waited in the hall, ready to testify on the Federal IND program and the amount of marijuana that the government gives to her and only six other patients in this country. She was never called.
Then court-qualified cannabis expert Chris Conrad showed up and was able to help the attorney draft a line of questioning to better establish the facts of the case: Somaya used very large amounts of cannabis in a variety of unorthodox ways, but it was beneficial for her and really was intended for personal use. On Thursday, before he could testify, Somaya attempted to fire her attorney and represent herself. She asked the judge to recuse himself, too. These motions were denied. Judge Michael Johnson tried to quiet her, telling her that she would have her opportunity to speak later and began to warn her that she would be removed if she didn't be quiet. Somaya took her scarf and gagged herself, so she would be able to be present at her own trial. She was very frustrated on how it had been going up to this point.
Then Chris Conrad took the stand and presented an authoritative analysis of Somaya's garden, her use, and facts in evidence. He was able to explain the difference between marijuana and hempseed oil, analyzed that she would get between 11 to 25 lbs of usable marijuana (buds alone or bud plus leaf) from her garden, that there was a long history and tradition of cannabis use in many of the same ways she used it. He said that leaf is much less potent than bud and that ingested cannabis requires four times as much as smoked. He noted that indicia supported personal use, not sales, and helped establish reasonable doubt for the case against her. The prosecutor challenged him, but afterwards in the hallway he complimented Chris, telling him that he was a good expert, a straight shooter, and apologizing for the negative tone of his interrogation.
I must note at this point that the prosecutor, Sean Carney, did not seem to have his heart in this trial. He was very competent, and followed the lines of questioning that he had to, but he was not overly aggressive. He was very friendly to the audience of medical marijuana supporters, greeting them as he arrived and left. He seemed to sense the community support and sympathetic circumstances of the case. In addition, the judge seemed very fair-minded and allowed the jury to hear as much of the truth as possible.
Another patient said that Somaya had been a caregiver to him in the past and he hadn't seen her in a year, so he was able to represent the constituency that she has helped. Many of these patients suffer greatly, and Somaya provided them with information related to cannabis use, preparations, and cannabis products -- mostly hempseed oil.
Richard Davis of the Hemp Museum took the stand and testified that he and Somaya were caregivers for each other. He had been there, seen how she suffered and helped her when he could. He had hoped to show that the police were harassing her. In June prior to the October raid and arrest, police had raided Somaya's garden and uprooted all her plants. She wasn't charged that time. But, he witnessed the police last June saying that (due to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative) California law does not apply, as the federal government does not allow it. He was not asked about that, however. When he got off the stand, Welbourn, at Somaya's request, asked the judge to enter into evidence the video, "The Emperor of Hemp", seeking to allow the jury to view it for hemp info. The judge respectfully took the video home, but Friday morning he stated that it was irrelevant to the case at hand. No surprise there.
On Friday, Somaya took the stand and explained what she was doing. She said that she wasn't growing marijuana, that she was growing Nigretian Kif. She said that prior to being called "Africa", her people referred to her land as Nigretia. She viewed it as a sacred and healing herb. She spoke of her Sickle Cell disease and her center, how she instructed many people on how to use it, through ingesting it, putting it on topically, bathing in it, using leaf, bud, seed oil and so on. "They're all mine," she said, taking responsibility for her garden, trying to leave others out of the path of the criminal justice system. She denied providing it, as she didn't have enough for herself and the police keep coming and taking it away. The people she was helping were poor, and they were doing their best to help themselves and not rely on the government for their health needs. The former Black Panther spoke of the war on her people that has lasted 500 years already, and the Drug War that is also a war on us. She was wonderful on the stand, and she presented herself as a dignified woman who was doing what she could to help herself and others deal with a terrible disease.
On Monday, the attorneys finished their arguments and the jury received their final instructions. If the facts supported it, the jury was instructed to convict her. If they found that she was a bona fide patient, they would drop counts 1,3, 4 and 5 but still find her guilty of count 2. They could also find her guilty of the lesser counts mentioned earlier.
It took this diverse jury of her peers just three hours to deliberate. When they returned with their verdict, the judge commended the audience for their comportment during the trial, and asked them to refrain from reacting to what they were about to hear. Then the charges were listed. Fifteen times, the forewoman repeated the words, "Not guilty." Sister Somaya was acquitted on all counts. The audience restrained themselves from cheering until they got outside. Chris and I heard the news from a phone call. We were ecstatic that the jury understood the intent of the Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215), that was to allow patients to use marijuana as medicine. Compassion and justice had ruled the day.
Welbourn told Chris and me that the jury believed that they heard only one real expert testify -- Chris Conrad. The police had had no credibility. The jurors thought Sister Somaya was a fantastic woman. They admired her for standing up for California's medical marijuana law, and they agreed with what she was doing for the patients at her center. They were not concerned with the amount as much as with her intentions. Some questioned why the government was wasting taxpayers' dollars on these kinds of prosecutions. Welbourn estimated that the court costs alone were about $125,000, not including the surveillance, raid and Somayah's 60-day incarceration after her arrest.
The DA stated in an LA Times article that Somaya was a sympathetic defendant and noted that this seemed to be a case of jury nullification. Somaya intends to get an injunction against the police to leave her alone. She plans on suing to get her property back and to hold the government accountable for the harassment she has endured over the last few years.
This trial was a significant victory for medical marijuana. It showed that the people understand and believe in the intent of California's medical marijuana statute -- to leave patients alone and allow them to do what they need to help themselves and others live better lives. It is major in that it showed that the people are less concerned about the letter of the law and more concerned that justice and compassion prevail. It sends a big message to Los Angeles county and the rest of California that it's time to stop the prosecutions of patients in the name of the people, because "the people" support the rights of patients to cultivate, process, use, and acquire marijuana for their medical use.
It turned out that it wasn't the "People vs. Sister Somaya Kambui" after all, but the people standing with her in the interests of justice, compassion, and freedom.