Healdsburg pot user faces challenges getting public assistance after robbery
January 13, 2012
Paul Payne, Press Democrat
Michael Steffens gets a little nervous these days when he hears car wheels coming up his rural Healdsburg driveway or one of his dogs barking at the window.
A little more than two years ago, the 51-year-old carpenter was the victim of a home-invasion robbery in which he was tied up and beaten by four men who dressed as police officers.
Steffens survived and the men were quickly caught and punished.
But unlike other victims, Steffens said he's been unable to get public assistance for the post-traumatic stress disorder he's developed. And the courts have so far declined to award restitution for the bulk of his losses.
Authorities won't help him, Steffens said, because he was growing doctor-recommended marijuana, in full compliance with local guidelines.
“From the beginning I was denied services that would typically be given to someone whose car was stolen,” said Steffens, a card-carrying medical pot user since 2003. “They just threw their hands in the air.”
Steffens' case comes amid increasing controversy and confusion over marijuana laws.
While state and local governments have approved possession of certain amounts for medicinal purposes, marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
The Drug Enforcement Administration this fall began raiding local pot farms after the U.S. Attorney announced a crackdown on distributors.
At the same time, violence connected to marijuana theft has mounted. At least two Sonoma County homicides in 2011 are believed to be linked to pot.
Whether victims of those crimes will receive all of the public services offered to other crime victims remains an open question. And whether they can get reimbursed for stolen marijuana is unclear.
Christine Cook, a spokeswoman for Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, said there's no blanket policy disqualifying victims who were growing marijuana in compliance with local guidelines.
But to be eligible to receive compensation for out-of-pocket expenses such as counseling, a victim must meet a list of criteria outlined by state law, Cook said.
For instance, the person cannot have participated or contributed to the underlying crime. They also must cooperate with law enforcement and can't be convicted felons.
Cook did not say if Steffens was found to be ineligible.
“Our practice is to review each application to determine if they qualify according to law,” Cook said. “They have 45 days to appeal.”
Gloria Eurotas, director of victims' service for the district attorney, said no one is rejected because they are growing medical pot.
“We can never say that because medical marijuana is involved in the crime the victim is not eligible,” Eurotas said.
But Steffens' attorney, Steve Spiegelman, said that's exactly what happened with his client. He believes that because local government programs are partly funded by federal grants, authorities won't help anyone connected to marijuana.
“I think it's pretty clear that it's not covered,” Spiegelman said. “They have denied services.”
Spiegelman will go to court Jan. 23 to ask Judge Gary Medvigy to intervene.
In addition to getting expenses for treatment, Spiegelman is asking for $18,000 for six pounds of stolen marijuana Steffens and another person were growing that was never recovered.
It's a reasonable request, Spiegelman said, considering the courts have ordered police to return marijuana in cases where criminal charges were dismissed.
“You'd think it would be a slam-dunk for someone who had it stolen,” Spiegelman said.
Marijuana advocates will be watching the outcome. Kris Hermes of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access said no one in the state has been awarded restitution for stolen marijuana.
“It sounds like this is going to be an example for people to look at as a case study,” Hermes said. “If there is a fund for victims ... they deserve compensation like anybody else.”
Meanwhile, Steffens said the experience has made him reluctant to grow pot at his West Dry Creek Road ranch to treat recurring neck pain.
Back in October 2009, four men barged in wearing police uniforms, tied him up and beat him. They loaded a U-Haul trailer with his marijuana and took off.
He got free and called 911. The men were quickly apprehended. Two of the men are still serving prison sentences.
It was an incident that will remained seared in his memory forever. He still suffers from insomnia and stress, he said.
“Now I don't grow anything because of this,” Steffens said. “Instead I have security cameras and two big dogs. It's scary.”