Medical pot users arrested

January 05, 2008

Stacia Glenn, San Bernardino Sun (CA)

JOHNSON VALLEY - JoAnn Cates, who has 16 great-grandchildren, seems an unlikely candidate to be handcuffed and hauled off to jail for growing a marijuana crop in her backyard.

As she talks about her ordeal, Cates' wrinkled face breaks into frequent half-smiles. Her fingers fiddle with a diamond cross around her neck. Her frizzy white hair is neatly clipped with a barrette. Her bangs brush the top of her prescription glasses.

Cates, 74, was settling down for an after-lunch nap with her 3-year-old grandson Aug. 3 when she heard her husband of 30 years call her name.

Outside the two-bedroom mobile home they've lived in since 1985, Richard McCabe had dropped the gardening hose. Four San Bernardino County sheriff's vehicles were zeroing in on their home from dirt roads flanking the property.

McCabe suspected a drug raid was at hand. He'd wondered when authorities would show up at his door ever since he'd started growing marijuana 10 years earlier.

"We usually don't have people this old doing this kind of stuff, but the pot smokers of the '60s and '70s are starting to get to this age," said Michael Abacherli, special prosecutor for the district attorney's Marijuana Suppression Unit. "That's the only unusual thing about this case."

Cates and McCabe disagree.

They say what's unusual is the county's refusal to issue medical- marijuana cards to patients legally allowed to light up.

Cates uses marijuana for arthritis and insomnia.

McCabe medicates more often, but for diabetes, neck and back pain, and for symptoms associated with his cancer remission.

Authorities said legally smoking marijuana is one thing.

Growing is another.

Deputies didn't come to the couple's home that day expecting to find marijuana plants. They were looking for stolen property possibly left there by the couple's adult son, who was arrested two days earlier in connection with a construction site theft.

A half-dozen armed sheriff's deputies cut the padlock off the gate in front of the property and searched the premises before handing over a warrant to look for stolen goods, McCabe said.

Cates contends her son has never lived in the mobile home and that deputies searched it because she and her husband are relatively well-known activists for medical-marijuana rights.

Stolen articles were recovered at the house, authorities said.

But the big find was a plastic- covered greenhouse containing 120 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, authorities said.

Cates and McCabe, who said they were unsure how much marijuana they were growing, were arrested and booked into the Joshua Tree Jail for three hours until their daughter posted $1,000 bail for each of them.

"It's pretty scary when you've never been arrested before and you're as old as I am," Cates said.

They've both been charged with cultivating marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale and possession of a controlled substance.

Cates and McCabe, who live on Social Security checks, said they didn't sell their homegrown marijuana. It was for personal use.

Some was distributed to McCabe's patients, he said, although he declined to say how many people he grew for.

McCabe is a "caretaker," which means he is authorized to grow marijuana for other legal users.

"The law is on our side," McCabe said. "They're the ones breaking the law by coming in and arresting us."

Prosecutors acknowledge Cates and McCabe both have legitimate doctor's recommendations that allow them to use marijuana.

The problem, Abacherli said, is that the couple far exceeded the amount of marijuana allowed to those permitted to use it.

In California, medical-marijuana patients are allowed to grow 12 immature marijuana plants or six mature marijuana plants, or possess eight dried ounces.

Having more than 100 is "outrageous," Abacherli said.

"It's so much more in excess of medical-marijuana plants that would be allowed," he said. "And once you go over the legal amount, all of it is contraband."

Cates and McCabe face up to three years in prison.

They were hoping their doctor's recommendations for marijuana use would convince prosecutors to dismiss the charges, but Abacherli said that won't happen.

They're scheduled to appear in court later this month.

Lanny Swerdlow, director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, is trying to drum up support and $10,000 to help pay for a lawyer for the couple.

Cates and McCabe's case is one of several Swerdlow cites in passionate diatribes about how the county is wronging medical-marijuana patients by refusing to issue ID cards.

"The continued (flouting) of state law and waste of taxpayers' money by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has led to the tragedy of the arrest of these two senior citizens," Swerdlow wrote to the 700-plus people on the group's mailing list.

Medical-marijuana ID cards are state-mandated as part of Proposition 215, which California voters approved in 1996.

They are intended to help law enforcement differentiate between legitimate medical users and recreational pot users.

San Bernardino and San Diego counties have appealed a court's ruling that the cards do not violate federal law, which bans marijuana for any reason.

Cates and McCabe said it is important for the county to issue ID cards so other medical marijuana patients won't be arrested like they were.

They continue to use marijuana to reduce various aches and pains.

Cates said they are very careful about not exposing their 13 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren to the drug.

McCabe carefully set a silver case on a wooden table before extracting a vaporizer, a device used to release the active ingredients of marijuana rather than the smoke.

He pinched some pot out of a green container and dropped it in the vaporizer's bowl, then leaned back in his chair as he waited for the marijuana to heat up and release the vapors.

Once it was hot enough, he filled an oven bag with the vapors and slowly inhaled several times.

"I feel better already," McCabe said as a red flush crept over his face.



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