By Claire Cooper -- Bee Legal Affairs Writer,
SAN FRANCISCO -- The man who has been called the Martha Stewart of marijuana was convicted by a reluctant federal jury Friday of supplying hundreds of pot seedlings to patients through Bay Area dispensaries. Edward Rosenthal, 58, the author of a dozen books on marijuana and an advice column that runs in two national marijuana advocacy magazines, faces at least five years in prison and steep fines for violating U.S. laws on marijuana cultivation and conspiracy. The jury refused to convict him of growing more than 1,000 pot plants, as the government had charged.
The higher number would have subjected him to a 10-year minimum sentence. Rosenthal, who remains free on $200,000 bond, will be sentenced in June. The conviction was the federal government's biggest trophy so far in a two-year war that has closed pot farms and cooperatives from Chico to West Hollywood, some of them sanctioned by their communities as official pot providers under California's medical marijuana initiative. 'My case clearly demonstrates that it is time for a national debate on the issue of medical marijuana,' Rosenthal said after the verdict. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration, however, issued a new warning to marijuana outlets Friday. 'None of them should be surprised when we pay them a visit,' said DEA spokesman Richard Meyer. No pot operation should view itself as being condoned, he said, by 'the fact that we have not gotten to all of them.' Valerie Corral, a leader of the state's medical marijuana movement, said the federal efforts had not diminished pot use among patients. The chief effect of Rosenthal's conviction, she said, would be to further divert marijuana trade to the black market and 'just make prices higher.' The jury that convicted Rosenthal on three counts had been screened to disqualify dozens of potential jurors who voiced sympathy for Proposition 215, passed in 1996 to permit the cultivation of marijuana as medicine for seriously ill people. Nevertheless, the jurors that remained 'absolutely' would have acquitted if it could have -- 'no doubt about it,' foreman Charles Sackett said outside the courtroom. The Sebastopol man said sympathy or lack of it wasn't the issue because of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer's instruction that, regardless of Proposition 215, no pot cultivation could be consistent with federal law. The case bore striking similarities to the federal trial last summer of Bryan Epis in Sacramento. Epis, the moving force behind a pot buyers' club in Chico, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a trial in which U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell barred medical evidence and took extraordinary steps to shield jurors from demonstrators. Some of the same groups that rallied outside Epis' trial passed out leaflets outside the court in San Francisco. Two blocks away, in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza, a billboard featuring Epis' 8-year-old daughter was erected as part of a statewide medical pot campaign. Rosenthal's wife and 12-year-old daughter sat in the front row and openly cried as the verdict was read to the packed courtroom. Jurors said they were made aware that medical use was the issue by Breyer's striking of all allusions to it during testimony. One such instance occurred Thursday, when Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, called as a witness for Rosenthal, testified he met the defendant 'in the context of Proposition 215.' Breyer struck that testimony. He also did not permit Miley to testify about Oakland's deputizing of Rosenthal in an attempt to shield him from federal prosecution for supplying a city-sponsored medical pot club. Miley did tell the jury, 'Mr. Rosenthal was growing starter plants for people who couldn't grow them themselves.' In cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan, Miley said he 'probably' saw thousands of plants, some as tall as 4 feet, on a visit to Rosenthal's West Oakland facility. Bevan said during closing arguments that when Rosenthal's Oakland operation was raided a year ago, agents recovered 628 rooted plants. Other plants were linked to Rosenthal by stakes stamped with his Medfarm brand name, the prosecutor said. The defense, unable to argue about a possible medical justification, made a thinly veiled plea for jury nullification in disregard of the federal anti-pot law. 'Please do justice,' said defense lawyer Robert Eye. 'We don't ask you to check your common sense of justice at the door when you judge this case. I can only hope there are those of you whose sense of justice ... ' But Breyer interrupted. 'It's not your determination whether a law is just or unjust,' the judge told jurors. 'That can't be your task.' Rosenthal issued a statement Friday night that he will appeal on grounds the truth was barred from the trial. If the jury had known of Oakland's attempt to immunize him from prosecution, it would have acquitted him, he said. But Sackett, when asked if such testimony would have changed the verdict, said, 'Unfortunately, it would not have' because the judge's instruction about the federal law left jurors no choice.