A charter member of O.C.'s cannabis club

July 18, 2007

Dana Parsons, Columnist, Los Angeles Times

I hadn't talked to Marvin Chavez since an Orange County jury convicted him in 1998 of selling marijuana. He was fuming about it then, and he's fuming now.

Come to think of it, prison isn't really a place where people go to cheer up. Especially if you think you were convicted on bogus charges, as Chavez claims. Of course, I can't read his mind, can't know if he really was innocent or was just pulling some grand scam.

But, he says, he turned his time (about three years of a six-year sentence) into a test of one's self and came out whole.

And what better time to hook up again than the week when the Orange County supervisors agreed to a plan that would license the medical use of marijuana and issue licenses to patients who qualify. Chavez was in the board room when it happened Tuesday, back in the same jurisdiction that sent him to the slammer way back when.

Which is what I asked him Wednesday afternoon as he relaxed in his Santa Ana home: Does it seem like a long time ago?

For starters, he says, Orange County has a new district attorney and a new sheriff. When Chavez ran afoul of the law, the sheriff was Brad Gates, who headed a statewide coalition against Prop. 215, the initiative California voters passed in 1996 that allowed medical use of marijuana. Then-Orange County D.A. Michael Capizzi also opposed the measure.

Chavez was vocal and public in his support. A victim of spinal ankylosis, a condition that causes the vertebrae to fuse, he used marijuana for pain relief and made no secret of making it available to other sufferers.

He insists he never sold it to anyone who didn't need it, and only took money as a donation to an organization he'd set up to coordinate his efforts. The D.A.'s office saw those donations as sales, also alleging that Chavez was cultivating much more pot than needed to tend to the sick.

Chavez headed to prison in January 1999.

That was then, and you might figure Chavez, now 51, might be out of the cannabis club business.

No, ma'am. In the wake of the supervisors' decision, he hopes to set up a new organization as a local clearinghouse for medical marijuana information and, eventually, making it available to those who qualify. As with his previous organization, Chavez says, he would only ask for donations from those who could afford it.

Déjà vu all over again?

"I paid my dues," Chavez says, "and I've got too many members [from the previous club] that I don't want to be forgotten or to have died in vain. I've spent too many years on this just to give it up now."

He speaks with the same verve that I recall from years back. He says his passion stems from two things: a desire to ease people's physical pain and his sense of justice.

I ask if he can accept that local authorities in the late 1990s genuinely believed he was a garden variety drug-dealer. He refuses to believe it, noting that his attorney asked an undercover cop at trial if he'd ever heard of a drug-dealer who handed out membership cards, donation slips or, on some occasions, free pot if people couldn't afford to buy it.

Apparently not swayed by that, the jury convicted him of two felony sales charges, while knocking down several other felonies to misdemeanors.

Chavez says the trial was all about the drug wars in a notoriously conservative county. "I received kangaroo justice," he says. "I was blackballed, was a political football, whatever description you want to come up with."

He says he sought meetings with both Capizzi and Gates back then, even leaving literature with the sheriff on marijuana and its various uses. That'd be pretty dumb for someone who was selling pot illegally, he says.

Orange County is still conservative, making the board's decision this week mildly surprising, even as it basically implements a state Senate bill signed into law in 2003. But with a sheriff who has been much more progressive on marijuana matters than was Gates, the county probably reflects the rest of the country in loosening up on the subject.

So, it's full speed ahead for Chavez, planning to be just as outspoken as ever. At some point, he'll be giving out cannabis again. Obviously, someone will be watching him.

As he once thought in the late 1990s, he thinks his visibility should ease any law-enforcement fears. "It'd be stupid on their end or it would show how dark or negative they are, to do anything to me," he says. "There's no reason for that, when everyone puts everything on the table. Why would you throw this person in prison, unless you're a totally negative person, evil, period?"

For now, he has the sense that times have changed. The supervisors' vote was 4-1.

How did it feel to hear the vote go his way?

"I felt good. It picked up my spirits and I thought of all the members I'd lost and said, 'We did it, guys.' It was about time, you know."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at http://www.latimes.com/parsons .



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