County shifts medical marijuana policies

May 25, 2004

Heidi Rowley, Tulare Advance-Register

Jeff Nunes, 26, loves his plants.

He fingers the green, glossy leaves and looks lovingly at the 2-foot-tall plant as if it were his life's salvation.

Nunes believes it is. He says the 11 marijuana plants provide the cannabis that relieves him of extreme back pain.

'They said I was going to be in chronic pain all my life,' he said.

A fall in 2001 left him bedridden for two years.

'As soon as I started using cannabis, I gave them back all the pills,' Nunes said. 'I started seeing how much more effective this is than other drugs.

'

Nunes and his marijuana plants are at the center of what appears to be a change in attitude among Tulare County law enforcement agencies -- the result of a ruling by a federal appeals court in December.

Visalia police raided Nunes' house in September and, Nunes says, removed 18 marijuana plants and tools he used to process them.

Nunes said he showed officers his two recommendation cards that identify him as a legitimate user of medical marijuana.

'When they realized I wasn't a drug dealer but a patient, their attitude changed,' he said. 'I tried to help them understand what was going on here and it was a legit operation.'

Even then, he said, 'They uprooted all my plants. They destroyed all of it. They took all my medicinal tools. I had enough medicine that would have lasted me until the next season.'

Three months later, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said people who use marijuana on the advice of a doctor are exempt from federal laws that ban the substance if they grow their own or get it free.

It was the latest in a series of state and federal court rulings in the wake of a voter initiative -- Proposition 215, passed in 1996 -- which granted the right under state law to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Federal drug authorities claimed federal law prevailed but lost that argument before the appeals court in December. The issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, the Tulare County District Attorney's Office decided not to file charges against Nunes, and last week the police department returned his tools, but not his marijuana plants, which it said were destroyed.

Visalia police Sgt. Ed Lynn, newly placed in charge of the department's narcotics squad, says he didn't participate in the Nunes raid. He says he's helping develop a department policy on handling medical marijuana cases.

Department spokesman Sgt. Shawn Delaney said in the past three months, there have been three other medical marijuana cases.

'In one case, 59 plants were seized. The district attorney has filed charges in this case, and it is pending in court,' he said. 'The other two cases, they appeared to be legitimate medical marijuana cases. They were checked out, and nothing was seized and no complaint was sent to the District Attorney's Office.'

Deputy District Attorney Carol Turner said when the District Attorney's Office receives a marijuana case where the defendant claims to have a valid recommendation, she said it will also investigate whether the recommendation is valid.

Proposition 215 said physicians could recommend their patients use marijuana if they believe it is necessary.

Federal authorities, however, threatened to seek revocation of medical licenses in cases where doctors recommended marijuana for their patients. A federal appeals court decision in October 2002 blocked attempts to punish doctors, ruling they violated both doctors' First Amendment rights and the doctor-patient relationship.

The California Medical Board informed doctors that they would not risk their licenses if they recommend marijuana in accordance with accepted standards of medical responsibility.

These standards include obtaining the history of a patient, performing an examination, developing a treatment plan, consultation, record keeping and a periodic review. Recommendations become invalid one year after the date they're issued or if the card-holder is arrested for a non-cannabis related crime.

Dr. Claudia Jensen, Nunes' doctor and a medical marijuana consultant, said she is 'comforted' by the Medical Board's statement.

'They have the courage to do what's right, and that what's so beautiful,' she said.

Nunes says the cannabis dulls the pain in his back but, unlike other medications, doesn't take it all away. He said with some medications he wouldn't feel any pain and then over exert himself, needing something stronger once the medication wore off.

'I still want to feel,' he said. '[Cannabis] just dulls the pain so I can go on with work without anything holding me back. It's knowing you're still hurt and have limitations but knowing you're not going to injure yourself. It's knowing your limitations.'

Nunes said he is impressed that Visalia police are recognizing Proposition 215, even if it took them eight years to do it.

'I want to help these officers as much as I can,' he said.

Guidelines

Nunes and Lynn are working together to develop guidelines for this area on how many plants are acceptable for a medical marijuana patient and how officers can be better trained on how to separate a medical marijuana patient from a drug dealer.

'I know they're doing their job,' he continued. 'I just want them to do their job correctly.'



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