City to appeal medical marijuana ruling

August 27, 2007

Leslie Albrecht, Merced Sun-Star (CA)

The battle of the buds hasn't yet gone up in smoke.

The city will appeal a recent ruling that awarded $1,700 to medical marijuana user Sam Matthews. The money was meant to compensate Matthews for pain and suffering and the loss of $300 in pot that police confiscated last October.

But Chief Deputy City Attorney Jeanne Schechter says giving Matthews the money would be tantamount to the city buying illegal drugs. "We believe there's no legal basis in ordering the city to pay for contraband," said Schechter.

The city will file its appeal this week in Merced Superior Court.

The legal to-and-fro hasn't dampened Matthews' fighting spirit. He now plans to hire a lawyer and sue the city again, this time for $25,000.

"If they would have paid me my small claims money I would have just disappeared -- poof!," said Matthews. "But you can sure bet your bottom dollar that I'm not giving up. Last time they got slapped, this time they'll get Tysoned" -- a reference to onetime boxing champ Mike Tyson.

The city's appeal marks yet another chapter in what Matthews calls his David-and-Goliath struggle with the city. It's also another example of how people like Matthews get caught between conflicting strands of federal and state laws regulating marijuana.

Matthews, a 25-year-old Merced College student who uses medical marijuana to ease back and knee pain, was handcuffed by police last October after he was discovered "medicating" -- smoking pot -- in his parents' garage.

Matthews showed police an Alameda County medical marijuana user card and a doctor's note, but he was cited for possession of pot. Police also confiscated Matthews' "medicine" -- 26.5 grams of pot -- and locked it in an evidence warehouse.

In May, Merced County started issuing medical marijuana cards, which are meant to prove to local law enforcement that the user is following the 1996 state law legalizing medicinal pot.

But Matthews' run-in with police happened months before Merced Police adopted a policy recognizing the cards. Officers had no choice but to follow the federal law that calls pot illegal, said Police Commander Tom Martin. "When there's ambiguity in the law, it leads to the dilemma that we're in today," said Martin.

The criminal charges against Matthews were eventually dropped, but a judge ruled two weeks ago that his pot be destroyed. Police burned the marijuana in an incinerator. Matthews said he doesn't mind that his stash went up in flames, especially because its potency had likely diminished over the past several months. "To me, it was more of a personal thing," said Matthews. "I would have liked to have gotten it back to show the police they were wrong."

Meanwhile, Matthews also sued the city in small claims court, seeking $7,500 in damages for pain and suffering he experienced when he lost his medical marijuana. A judge ruled earlier this month in Matthews' favor, ordering the city to pay $1,700.

But Schechter, with the City Attorney's office, said Judge Armando Rodriguez offered no legal basis for his decision. She also noted that if the city paid Matthews, it could leave the city open to paying out similar claims in the future.

But Matthews calls the city's appeal a waste of taxpayer money. "How much money has it cost the taxpayers?" said Matthews. "All the city had to do was say, We're sorry sir, we made a mistake, here's your money.'"

Schechter said the city has not been tracking the cost of fighting the Matthews' case.

However much the city forks out fighting him, Matthews says he'll keep fighting just as hard so that his grass is greener.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209-385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.



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