The witch hunt continues

April 02, 2007

Paul Campos, Columnist, Rocky Mountain News

Jack Branson sits in the cluttered living room of the modest house he rents from a family member on the ragged edge of this Denver suburb. On the table between us are vials containing eight different medicines.

Branson, a slightly built man who will turn 39 the next day, is seriously ill. For nearly 20 years he's lived with the HIV virus that causes AIDS; in addition he has hepatitis B, and a slipped disc in his back. Some of the medicines keep him alive, while others, including oxycodone and methadone, help control the chronic pain in which he lives.

Like many people with HIV, Branson finds it difficult to tolerate the drugs that suppress the virus. Indeed, the drugs tend to make him so nauseated that on several occasions he stopped taking them, causing him to develop full-blown AIDS.

And, like many other seriously ill people, Branson discovered that by smoking marijuana he could control the nausea well enough to take his medicine regularly. It was precisely to help people like Branson that the voters of Colorado amended the state's constitution in 2000, to allow doctors to recommend marijuana for patients they believed would benefit from it.

Six years ago, a doctor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine - an expert on the treatment of AIDS - told Branson he ought to smoke marijuana if that would allow him to take his medicine regularly (each time Branson stopped taking the medicine his body became more resistant to its effects).

The Colorado medical marijuana law doesn't require a doctor's recommendation to be in writing, and Branson began to grow a few marijuana plants in his backyard, Eventually he had 14 plants, which, given the relatively short Colorado growing season, was only enough to supply him with enough medical marijuana to get him through two thirds of the year.

In October of 2004, the North Metro Drug Task Force, a local law enforcement consortium that gets considerable funding from the federal government, showed up at Branson's house. They didn't have a warrant, but according to Branson they told him they would do serious damage to his house if he forced them to come back with one.

Branson had every reason to believe he had done nothing illegal (he in fact has no criminal record of any kind), and he consented to the warrantless search. He was then charged with felony cultivation of a controlled substance, and possession with intent to distribute.

Branson shows me the approximately 10-foot-by-4-foot plot of earth where he had grown his plants. "This is the east side and this is the west side of the plot," he tells me. "I labeled the bags in which I kept the marijuana East and West, depending on which side of the plot the plants came from. The drug task force's theory is that I intended to distribute the stuff on the East and West coasts."

Branson's lawyer, Robert Corry, describes himself as a strong Republican (he was the Republican committee counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in Washington in the 1990s.) In other words, he's hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, yet he's genuinely outraged by what the government is doing to his client. He estimates that Branson's trial, which starts tomorrow, will cost the taxpayers of Adams County at least $100,000.

That seems like a steep price to pay for the privilege of persecuting a harmless, desperately ill man, who doesn't appear to have committed a crime in even the most technical sense, and who might well die in prison if he's sent there.

Prisons don't allow medical marijuana use, and Branson says he would consider a prison sentence of more than six months to be the equivalent of capital punishment, since he probably can't live longer than that without his HIV medicine.

I suppose in our government's eyes that outcome would just prove once again how dangerous smoking marijuana really is.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at .

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