Medical marijuana advocates get victory in state appeals court

October 19, 2006

Genevieve Bookwalter, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Medical marijuana advocates say this week's state appeals court ruling broadens the scope of who can legally sell marijuana and will make it easier for those who need the drug to get it.

California's 6th District Court of Appeal on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Roger Mentch. The Felton man found guilty last year of cultivation of marijuana and possession of the drug for sale because he was not considered a "caregiver."

Santa Cruz attorney Ben Rice said in the past, caregivers have had to prove they had regular contact with a patient and provided services beyond drug delivery. But now, "all you have to do is show some evidence of helping in some fashion with a person's health," Rice said. That help includes providing medical marijuana, and could apply to a distributor or collective.

California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and allowing designated "caregivers" to provide the drug. It is still illegal under federal law.

In the 31-page ruling, Justice Franklin Elia wrote that a jury should have been allowed to hear evidence that Mentch, who runs the Hemporium LLC, a caregiving service and pot collective in Felton, was a legal caregiver of the clients for whom he grew and delivered marijuana. That evidence was not permitted in court and Mentch was found guilty.

District Attorney Bob Lee, whose office prosecuted the case, did not return phone calls to comment.

Mentch's troubles began in 2003, when he was arrested after a bank teller reported his cash deposits consistently reeked of marijuana. He had started the business a year earlier after being laid off by his Silicon Valley employer.

When arrested, Mentch said he grew marijuana for himself and five other people, all of whom had medical marijuana prescriptions. His defense team wanted to argue that service defined him as a caregiver. The court, however, would not allow it.

Appellate court justices agreed with the defense.

Mentch, "by consistently growing and supplying physician-approved or prescribed medicinal marijuana ... was meeting an important health need of several medical marijuana patients," Elia wrote.

Ken Sampson, president of the Santa Cruz Patients Collective in Santa Cruz, said the ruling helped legitimize those who provide medical marijuana.

"We pay sales tax, we do everything by the book," said Sampson, whose collective sells medical marijuana in the Harvey West neighborhood.

While Santa Cruz has agreed that collective workers qualify as caregivers, Sampson said he hopes the ruling will give credence to those operating outside city limits.

"This new decision adds weight to that countywide," Sampson said. "It just legitimizes what we're doing here."

Contact Genevieve Bookwalter at gbookwalter@santacruzsentinel.com.



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