Marijuana grower's trial under way

January 21, 2002

Josh Richman,

SAN FRANCISCO -- The criminal trial of a renowned pro-marijuana author and activist from Oakland began Tuesday, a microcosm of the conflict between state and federal laws on whether the drug can be used legally as medicine. Ed Rosenthal's lawyer, Robert Eye, repeatedly tried to elicit testimony to show that the marijuana Rosenthal grew was destined for Bay Area cooperatives and clubs, which in turn provided it to patients bearing doctors' recommendations. But U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer decided last week this testimony wouldn't be allowed, and he sustained almost all of Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan Jr.'s objections Tuesday. 'I've ruled that the purpose for which the marijuana was grown is not a defense and is irrelevant,' Breyer told Eye while jurors were out of the courtroom for a recess. Breyer said federal law doesn't distinguish between medical use and any other use. 'That may be what the law should say, but that's not what the law does say. I'm not the Congress. I'm not the FDA (Food and Drug Administration.) You cannot introduce that evidence to the jury.' Still, it's hard to unring a bell, and although Breyer ordered jurors to disregard anything said about Rosenthal's purpose in violating federal laws, some of Rosenthal's supporters seemed pleased that jurors had heard mentions of medicinal use prior to the recess. Jurors glanced several times at that crowd of supporters, which included some people in wheelchairs. Rosenthal, 58, was among those arrested last February when Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home office and other Oakland sites; the Harm Reduction Center medical marijuana club in San Francisco; and the Petaluma home of Harm Reduction Center founder Ken Hayes. State allows medical use State law allows medical use of marijuana and Rosenthal grew it with the knowledge of Oakland city officials, but federal law still bans all marijuana cultivation, possession and use. He's charged with conspiracy, cultivation and maintaining a property -- a commercial building on West Oakland's Mandela Parkway -- for cultivation. If convicted, he could go to prison for decades. Bevan made his opening statement Tuesday by briefly outlining evidence against Rosenthal and naming a litany of federal agents and other witnesses who will testify. Eye and co-counsel Bill Simpich chose to reserve their opening statement until after Bevan is done presenting his case. Bevan's first witness was James Halloran, 62, of Oakland, who was arrested in the same series of raids as Rosenthal. Halloran has pleaded guilty to marijuana cultivation and money laundering in a deal with prosecutors that requires his testimony against Rosenthal in exchange for a reduction of his sentence to 56 months in federal prison rather than 50 years to life. Halloran testified he leased the Mandela Parkway building in 1997 so he and Rosenthal could use it for marijuana cultivation, but he walked away from the partnership and let Rosenthal assume the lease in 1998. He established his own operation to grow marijuana elsewhere in Oakland -- also raided last February -- but visited the Mandela Parkway building often and saw Rosenthal several times a week for racquetball or coffee. Harm Reduction Center Rosenthal grew marijuana up until the raids, Halloran testified, and had told Halloran he was providing marijuana to the Harm Reduction Center. But during cross-examination, Breyer sustained Bevan's objections as Eye tried to get Halloran to explain what the center and other clubs like it were doing with the marijuana Rosenthal provided. Eye did get Halloran to testify that Rosenthal made no effort to hide the marijuana from Oakland Fire Department officials who inspected the Mandela Parkway building, and the fire officials didn't make an issue of it. Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@angnewspapers.com

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