Merced pot grower convicted

November 22, 2006

John Ellis, Fresno Bee

A federal jury took only two hours Wednesday to convict Merced marijuana activist Dustin Costa of growing and dealing the drug, a conviction that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. Costa, 60, was also convicted of possession of a firearm 'in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime.' Because of a prior marijuana cultivation conviction in Stanislaus County, Costa faces a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The firearm charge carries an additional five-year mandatory minimum, making 15 years the least amount of time Costa will spend in prison. The maximum term is life. Costa, also known as the Rev. D.C. Greenhouse, originally faced state charges that stemmed from a February 2004 bust at his home. The federal case against Costa — who was also president of the Merced Patients Group, a medical marijuana advocacy group — repackaged those marijuana cultivation charges. The trial was closely watched by medical marijuana activists because of claims that Costa used the drug for medicinal purposes. Activists said this was the first trial in the nation in three years involving claims of medical marijuana, and the first since a key U.S. Supreme Court decision on the issue last year opened the way for a federal government crackdown on marijuana use in California. But the debate over medical marijuana — which is legal under California law but illegal under federal law — never materialized because U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii prevented Costa's attorney from using that defense. 'Marijuana is illegal under federal law,' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Cullers, who is chief of the Criminal Division in the federal court's Fresno Division. 'We approached this case like we would approach any illegal narcotics case. We prosecuted it pursuant to the law.' But defense attorney Robert Rainwater said the 908 marijuana plants that Costa had at his rural Merced County home were for personal use — to treat a medical condition after a recommendation from a doctor. The jury didn't buy it, which pleased prosecutor Karen Escobar. 'I'm gratified that the jury followed the law,' she said. 'Justice was served.' Escobar portrayed Costa as a drug dealer who took steps to hide his operation but who showed signs typical of marijuana cultivation. She presented evidence of proceeds she said were derived from drug trafficking. Also, Costa's propane bill was $600 a month, and when Pacific Gas & Electric queried him about his abnormally high electric usage, he said he had kilns. Rainwater focused his defense on the charge that Costa was a drug trafficker. He said the government never offered compelling testimony on that charge. 'He's a man who went to his doctor and got a recommendation for marijuana,' Rainwater told jurors in his closing argument. 'He tried to live in the country where he could grow his marijuana in peace, but the federal government wouldn't let him.' Chris Conrad, an author and consultant who has legal experience working with marijuana in Europe, testified on Costa's behalf, saying the number of plants at his house was consistent with personal use. He noted that if Costa did more than smoke marijuana, such as eating it, making it usable in tea or coffee or vaporizing it, that would require more plants. Under cross-examination, Conrad said he had last smoked marijuana the day before he testified and smoked the drug with Costa at Costa's home during an event known as 'Weedstock.' Escobar said Conrad's yield estimates on Costa's crop were different from those he calculated while testifying in another case. The reporter can be reached at jellis@fresnobee.com or(559) 441-6320.

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