Couple reclaim marijuana

December 03, 2007

Julie Poppen, Rocky Mountain News (CO)

James and Lisa Masters pulled a broken 2-foot glass bong, large sacks of moldy marijuana - a total of 39 dead plants - and a small, usable quantity of the drug from the back of a white minivan.

The public display of illicit drugs in the parking lot of the police department Monday morning marked a critical step in a 16-month saga that began with the Masters being busted for growing pot in their home.

Supporters view the return of the substantial amount of marijuana as a precedent for how law enforcement agencies comply with the state's voter-backed medical marijuana laws.

"This is a historic day," said Brian Vicente, one of the Masters' attorneys and executive director of Sensible Colorado, a drug policy reform organization.

Vicente said this was the largest quantity of medicinal marijuana ever returned to a grower since voters backed the law in 2000. Attorney Robert Corry Jr. called the return of the pot "a victory for the voters of Colorado" and "a victory for compassion."

"I'm hoping this sends a message to police departments around Colorado that the Constitution is the highest law of the state and voters put it in there for a reason," Corry said.

Not everyone is convinced of the significance of Monday's action, though.

Larimer County District Court Judge Larry Abrahamson said the city attorney filed a request Wednesday to have the ruling reconsidered, but it was shot down. City Attorney Steve Roy could not be reached for comment.

Abrahamson said he was hoping a higher court would offer clarification on how federal drug laws - which ban the cultivation and use of cannabis - intersect with the state's implementation of medical marijuana laws.

Because the law was a constitutional amendment approved by voters, "we don't have a way to fix the law through the legislature," Abrahamson said, "only through a Supreme Court ruling."

"We were anxious to see a ruling," Abrahamson said.

Medical-use paperwork filed

The court-mandated return of the Masters' marijuana is the most recent in a string of court cases related to medical marijuana.

Colorado is one of 14 states that allow the medical use of marijuana under strict regulations. After getting a doctor's recommendation, patients can pay $110 to be listed on a confidential registry and receive an ID card saying they have permission to grow a small amount of marijuana or more, if medically necessary. Other states, such as Michigan, are considering similar laws.

"There is a lot of momentum," Vicente said. "I think public sentiment is really behind us on this issue."

Supporters estimate that as many as 1,800 people use medical marijuana in Colorado - at least 1,458 are on the state registry. Some 636 people are designated "caregivers" who may legally provide them with the drug.

Licensed patients are able to designate "caregivers" who legally can grow small amounts of marijuana and are immune from prosecution. The Masterses subsequently have completed all the paperwork and are licensed medical marijuana users and caregivers, their attorneys said.

Judge: Pair met requirements

The Masters case began in August 2006, when their home was raided by authorities. They spent a night in jail. Their two daughters, ages 6 and 7, were taken from them for eight weeks.

James Masters admitted that, at the time, neither he nor his wife was on the state's medical marijuana registry, nor did they have the card required to grow medical marijuana. He said they didn't have the money and his doctor's recommendation had expired.

Masters, 30, said he was using the drug to alleviate chronic hip and knee pain and cyclic vomiting and nausea. His wife, Lisa, 32, uses the drug to alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and three herniated discs in her neck. The couple were also helping several other people licensed by the state by providing them with medical-grade marijuana.

Masters said he was open with the police, who accompanied social services workers on a child welfare visit to their home, thinking he was protected by the law. Later, police raided the home using the earlier visit as the basis for a search warrant. In June 2006, Larimer County District Court Judge James Hiatt ruled the search warrant was illegal.

Hiatt ruled Nov. 26 that the plants and growing equipment must be returned, saying that while the couple weren't on the registry, they had fulfilled the definition of medical marijuana caregiver in the practical sense.

At the time, the law allowed caregivers to grow five cannabis plants per patient. Each caregiver could provide marijuana to six patients. In court, Vicente said he proved that the Masterses grew an amount that was medically necessary for their licensed patients. Four of their patients testified in court, describing how they were helped by the Masterses.

Fort Collins police spokeswoman Rita Davis disputed that the Masters home was raided. She said police accompanied social workers to the home and responded when they saw illegal activity.

"At the time the marijuana was confiscated they did not have any documentation that they were on a list or were registered," Davis said. "It wasn't until after the fact that they started to claim it was medical marijuana."

Not every court challenge has gone well for the pro-medical marijuana supporters.

But Corry believes even the losses help draw out supporters.

"The harder prosecutors and police come down on people, they are only helping our cause," he said.

What's next

* The Masters' case isn't over. Attorneys plan to pursue compensation because most of the marijuana was destroyed. In a previous interview, the couple's attorney put the value of the plants at $100,000.



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