Ill inmate denied herbs
June 18, 2006
John Ellis, Fresno Bee
For 15 years, Joe Fortt has lived with the human immunodeficiency virus, staying healthy, he says, with a self-prescribed combination of garlic, walnut, wormwood, ginseng, ginko, aloe vera, multivitamins – and marijuana.
Fortt, 43, has spent the last 11 months locked up in the Fresno County Jail, slowly dying from the ravages of the HIV virus, he said, because he has been denied his herbal treatment.
"I can tell by the way I feel I'm not getting any better," he said in a jailhouse interview. "In another six months, I won't have an immune system left anymore."
Already, the T-cells in Fortt's blood – which measure the immune system's effectiveness – have dropped from once fairly healthy levels to a point that many consider the threshold of AIDS, both Fortt and his supporters say.
Fresno County's health officer, Dr. Edward Moreno, said he could not discuss the health information of any individual jail inmate, or even verify that a certain individual is in the facility.
Generally speaking, however, he said the county assesses each individual inmate, makes a diagnosis and develops a treatment plan that includes prescription medications. The inmate can't be forced to abide by the plan, he said.
The Fresno County Sheriff's Department and county health officials also have developed a policy that no outside drugs or medications are allowed into the jail, Moreno said.
"We have good reasons to do that," he says. "We cannot verify the authenticity of any substance brought into the jail, and even if we can, we cannot verify the dosage." A high dosage, he said, could harm an inmate.
Fortt was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. A decade ago, he was given five years to live, he said.
After he experienced adverse reactions to antibiotics and traditional HIV drugs, he said he stumbled upon not only medical marijuana and other herbs that caused his health to rebound, but a kind of shock therapy delivered by batteries.
Dr. Daniel Blodgett, who has a family practice with offices in Oakhurst and Fresno that emphasizes alternative therapies, said there are no specific studies on Fortt's various herbal supplements that show they are effective for HIV.
However, Blodgett said, there is research evidence showing garlic is effective at killing bacteria and viruses.
He said walnut and wormwood are both "hopeful" for clearing up parasite infections, ginseng is a general immune system booster, ginko supports circulation and aloe vera is effective at healing damaged mucus linings of the stomach and intestines. But Blodgett is not aware of studies showing that any of those herbal remedies help viruses, boost the immune system or kill viruses.
"Vitamin use has been shown in studies clearly to prolong the disease-free progression of AIDS, so that's probably the one that works best for what he's doing," Blodgett said.
In early 2003, Fortt made a foray into the business of medical marijuana, opening Kern County's first medical cannabis dispensary, the American Kenpo Kung Fu School of Public Health. By February 2005, Fortt had 300 patients and hopes of opening a second dispensary in Clovis.
His Bakersfield-area operation served 300 patients, he said at the time, which allowed him under state law to have 1,800 mature plants.
At the time, state medical-marijuana activists and the federal government were tussling – as they had been since California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996 – over the use of marijuana.
The initiative permitted seriously ill people to – with a doctor's recommendation – use marijuana without fear of prosecution under state law. Ten other states followed California's lead.
In 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the Bush administration from prosecuting Oakland resident Angel Raich – who used marijuana to fight chronic pain – as well as her suppliers.
A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision. The following day, federal agents raided Fortt's dispensary.
Less than a month later – on July 20, 2005 – Fortt was arrested in Bakersfield. He was charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and locked up in the Fresno County Jail at the request of the U.S. Marshal's Office. No bail has been set.
Auberry-area attorney William McPike, who doesn't represent Fortt but has represented other medical marijuana patients and dispensers, said Fortt did not break the law. He said the charges against him are based on evidence collected before the Supreme Court's decision, at which time Fortt was not breaking any law.
"He locked the door on his clinic the day of the [Supreme Court's] Raich decision," he says. "He washed his hands of everything, and they still came in after him."
McPike added that others may have continued cultivating marijuana that agents had earlier allegedly tied to Fortt, but he was not a part of that operation.
A federal arrest complaint lists several facets of an investigation ongoing before the Supreme Court decision a year ago, but also said marijuana was growing on land that Fortt had earlier said he was leasing after the decision.
Joycelyn Barnes, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, responded to McPike's statements Friday, saying: "If [Fortt's] been arrested, he will make his way through the courts and the judicial system will speak for itself."
In the meantime, Fortt was denied bail after his arrest for several reasons, including the seriousness of the crime, that he had no family in the area and no substantial financial resources, according to federal documents. Fortt is a Canadian citizen.
When his T-cell levels were taken last September, they were at 366, said Fresno resident Mark Stout, who is a friend of Fortt. A level over 500 is considered symptom-free.
Fortt did not make a Jan. 17 status hearing before U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii because he was in the hospital. While there, he discovered his T-cell count had dropped to 154, below what many consider an AIDS threshold level of 200.
Twice, Fortt has been before Ishii, pursuing a motion to force the jail to allow the herbal regimen. Ishii denied the motion, but during both hearings, said he would have his staff call the jail to see if some accommodation could be made.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Servatius, who is prosecuting the case, said the criminal case against Fortt is not the proper venue for his medications motion.
There are other avenues, she said, that should be used for such complaints.
Fortt's attorney, Daniel Harralson, said law enforcement authorities should not stand in the way of Fortt's medication wishes.
"Even if it doesn't do him any good, what's the harm in letting him have it?" Harralson says. "What government purpose is served by saying you can't have these holistic cures?"
Fortt faces a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence if convicted. It will be, supporters say, a death sentence – if he makes it to his scheduled August trial.
"He worked fundamentally to help heal other people," Stout said. "He believed so strongly in a broad range of homeopathic medicine – including medical cannabis – that because of the disconnect between state and federal laws he's found himself incarcerated in a criminal justice system where he's incapable of maintaining his own health."The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 441-6320.