Medical pot user challenging city

August 03, 2007

Scott Jason, Merced Sun-Star (CA)

Sam Matthews doesn't mind blowing a sweet, thick cloud of marijuana smoke in the city's face.

The 25-year-old resident has challenged just about every city official to get the police to return two handfuls of medical marijuana.

The battle over the buds began 10 months ago when he was handcuffed by police and his stash was bagged as evidence.

Matthews has taken his fight to court, where he's suing the city and police for damages and asking that they return the 26.5 grams of marijuana.

"I ain't scared of them," he bragged before taking a 15-second hit off his glass pipe. "Bring it on."

Matthews, one of four residents with a Merced County medical pot card, is mired in the dopey contradictions between state and federal law over the use of medical marijuana.

The Merced College student believes his pot — still sitting in a police evidence locker — should be returned. City lawyers argue that giving it back would violate federal law, which still considers marijuana, medical or not, illegal.

His latest legal maneuver has been to sue the city and police department in Merced County Small Claims Court for $7,500 in damages stemming from being handcuffed and having his stash seized. "I didn't start the war," he proclaimed. "They did."

A hit from the system

A worn file folder filled with handwritten testimonies and photocopied court orders provides a blow-by-blow of Matthews' case, which began at 10:30 p.m. last Oct. 4.

Matthews said he spent the day helping his bed-bound parents — each weighs around 400 pounds — around their Loughborough Drive home. His back stung because of his scoliosis, and his knees ached since his right leg is about an inch-and-a-half longer than the left.

Inside the garage, he "medicated," or smoked pot to relieve the pain, he recalled.

Meantime, three officers outside on bike patrol noticed Matthews and his friends leaving the garage and thought they lived inside, according to the police citation.

Officer Brian Rodriguez smelled marijuana on Matthews, who admitted having the drug with him — along with with his Alameda County pot card and a doctor's recommendation.

Nonetheless, Matthews was handcuffed and driven downtown, where he was interviewed and cited for possessing about $300 worth of pot.

His court case slowly weaved its way through the system until Commissioner Carol Ash — now a judge — dismissed the charges in May, ordering that the pot be returned.

Three weeks later, the city convinced Ash to reverse her decision and allow the police to destroy the marijuana. Matthews said he wasn't notified of the hearing and decided to pursue remedies in Small Claims Court. The court will hear his arguments Aug. 17.

At the same time, Matthews filed a $7,500 complaint with the city seeking damages for pain and suffering since he was without his medicine for a couple weeks in October because he couldn't afford to buy a second supply.

The city and Matthews presented their cases Thursday to Judge Armando Rodriguez, a retired Fresno judge who was helping with Merced's caseload.

Matthews, wearing baggy gray slacks and a light gray T-shirt, told the judge that this battle has kept him awake at night. "I'm trying to get justice," he pleaded. "It tears a man up inside."

Behind him sat two city attorneys, Police Chief Russ Thomas, Cmdr. Tom Martin and a couple other Merced officials.

Rosa Winzer, an insurance coordinator with the city, said the officers were following state and federal law when they took Matthews' pot.

City Hall would essentially be buying marijuana if the judge accepts Matthews' civil complaint, she added. "We believe he does not have a case," Winzer said.

The judge asked the police officer who handcuffed Matthews if he hadn't checked to see if the Alameda County pot card was valid. "Why didn't you take the steps to verify?" he growled. "Or was your concern, 'He has grass, I don't like grass, I'm going to bust his ass.'"

A conundrum

Matthews first became a medical marijuana user in 2001, five years after California voters approved the "Compassionate Use Act," allowing doctors to recommend the drug.

The act butts heads with federal law, which still defines pot as an illegal drug with no legitimate uses.

Martin, a police commander, said the conflicting viewpoints put law enforcement in a tough position, but ultimately officers follow the federal drug law when they confiscate drugs. "It's a conundrum for everybody," he said.

The department recognizes Merced County pot cards and won't seize the drug from legitimate users, he said. However, Matthews was cited before the department had adopted a policy, which is why the bag of pot was taken.

Once the police have the marijuana, Martin said, they can't return it without possibly facing charges from the federal government.

Matthews argues this by pointing to a drug arrest in Livingston a few years ago when officers returned marijuana to a man after learning he used it for medical reasons.

Livingston Chief Bill Eldridge confirmed that the department handed over the marijuana after talking with the District Attorney's Office, but said it has since adopted a policy like Merced's to destroy all seized drugs.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Matthews' case highlights the chasm between the will of the voters and the police officers who have a "deep-seated" loathing of medical marijuana. "They would never do this for the other 400,000 pharmaceutical drugs," he said. "They think (medical marijuana) is a ruse."

Police officers come from a cross-section of the population, Martin countered, and are sworn to uphold the law. "We don't have a personal agenda or vendetta," he said.

More cases could come

In court, the judge said he believes the city should pay Matthews if he concludes that the doctor's recommendation and pot card were valid. He didn't say when he would announce a ruling.

Merced Deputy City Attorney Steven Wang said the city won't comment specifically on the court hearing, but said it would appeal if it lost.

The city is merely following federal law, which Wang admitted is constantly changing. "This is one of those cases when you're in between," he said. "We've all sworn to protect the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of California."

While Matthews waits, he'll keep growing marijuana at his south Merced home, and smoking throughout the day to numb the electrifying pain.

He plans to use any money awarded to hire a lawyer to further pursue his case in civil court. Matthews openly argues about how he feels targeted by local police, who he believes violated his civil rights so long ago.

For him, it's been reefer madness.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at 209-385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.



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