It's no time for reefer madness

January 31, 2006

Michael Fitzgerald, columnist, The Record (Stockton)

San Joaquin's highest-profile medical marijuana case went up in smoke Tuesday, and the futility of prosecuting it suggests Stockton's leaders better rethink any legally shaky resistance to California's medical marijuana law.

After three long years, possible aerial surveillance, a raid, "safe access" demonstrations at City Hall, celeb attorneys, news at 11 and who-knows-what costs to taxpayers, the DA on Tuesday dropped all pot-related charges against Aaron Paradiso.

Paradiso, a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic - a poster boy for Proposition 215 if ever there was one - and his harmless "co-op" of his mother and a friend or two had been charged with cultivating marijuana and possessing it with the intent to sell.

Paradiso was paralyzed in a 1998 car crash. He hurts. He suffers muscle spasms. Marijuana eases them, he says. So he grew it.

Authorities knew. He called them to ask how much was OK under Proposition 215. They couldn't say. Then coppers raided Paradiso's rural Stockton home in 2003 and seized 52 pot plants. Thanks for calling.

Admittedly, 52 plants is much more pot than one medical marijuana patient needs, even if the patient is Tommy Chong. But remember, Paradiso had a co-op of several users. All had a doctor's OK.

And there were no guidelines. Proposition 215 didn't say how much was too much.

There may have been more to Paradiso's cultivation than met the eye. Prosecutors, however, never produced evidence of marijuana sales - records, pagers, stacks of cash - nothing of that sort. So it sure looks like it was for his co-op's legal use.

Paradiso did admit giving surplus pot to a dispensary.

Deputies also seized, according to prosecutor Phil Urie, "enough guns to choke a horse." The guns complicate the picture.

In the plea agreement, Paradiso pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possessing an illegal weapon. He committed some offense as a juvenile and was not supposed to own a gun until age 30.

He says his mom owned them. The DA's office says he did. But even if the DA is right, the gun charge still seems overblown. Paradiso can't lift a finger to hold, let alone fire, a gun. It's unclear what the horse was choking on.

Guns could support a prosecution theory of sales. But the plea agreement casts light on the gravity of the gun offense: Paradiso gets no jail time, no fine, informal probation.

Yet Paradiso says he spent six figures defending himself. Taxpayers spent a chunk of change, too. All on a case that just did a Houdini.

Pardon me if - in a city with the highest rate of major crime in the state - that seems like a waste.

Nathan Sands, leader of Sacramento's Compassionate Coalition, said Paradiso's victory on the marijuana front has broader implications.

"Clearly, Phil Urie originally intended this case to prove that patients could not cultivate their medical marijuana in this county," Sands said. "And in the end, he had to admit he was wrong on that point."

And that means the council should re-evaluate Urie's arguments against medical marijuana dispensaries, Sands said.

Urie did not return a call for comment. He previously has expressed legitimate concerns about dispensaries' potential for corruption and violence.

But legitimate concerns don't justify legally iffy decisions. First the council declared a one-year moratorium on dispensaries. Now leaders contend zoning laws prohibit one.

The way is clear for anybody to apply for a dispensary permit and, when denied, to sue the city, probably with the financial backing of the pro-access groups. It's happening up and down California. The Paradiso case suggests it is high time to take legally realistic positions on medical marijuana issues.



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