Arkansas Man Fights Marijuana Arrest

June 20, 2004

Robin Mero , The Morning News

AVOCA -- A car climbed the long gravel driveway to James Yale's home and art studio. Through the screen door, Yale thought one of the four men resembled a guy from the pool hall.

They said they were cops. The Drug Task Force got a tip and they needed to know, was he growing pot?

Yale's morning had already been taxing.

His multiple sclerosis symptoms were flaring; he woke early but hadn't yet taken his medicines. He'd tried to paint and reconcile the checkbook but had a bad case of the shakes.

Yale led them inside to a room where fluorescent lights warmed a half-dozen plants, growing up to 5 feet tall.

'Well, there they are.'

Police found 19 plants that day, and some dried, processed pot by the bed. They seized cash and guns but didn't find any scales, plastic bags or evidence that Yale was selling his crop, said Sam Blankenship, a detective with the Benton County Sheriff's Office.

They found Yale's attitude to be 'a breath of fresh air' -- he was respectful and cooperative, inviting them to sit at his picnic table to hear why he grew and smoked that pot, Blankenship said.

'We felt sorry for the guy, but he'd crossed the line,' Blankenship said.

When they arrested Yale, they had to call for a second car to carry his wheelchair. He was released on a citation later that day for possessing and manufacturing marijuana.

One year later, prosecutors tell Yale that, if he'll admit guilt, they'll reduce his Class C felony to misdemeanor possession. A small fine, a probationary period and he's on his way. He'll keep his right to vote and could have much of his property returned.

Tempting, Yale told a reporter, but the issue runs much deeper.

He's not a crazy, old, pot-smoking fool -- but a man who believes deeply in health, freedom and his Constitutional rights, he said.

'I may be crucified to the max,' Yale conceded this week at his home studio. 'But with my failing health, I don't have anything to lose but my beliefs.'

He wonders: How can you manufacture a plant? The morphine and other medications he's been prescribed are expensive and have side effects. Why should he forego a treatment that -- for $5 a month -- eases his tremors, rids the blinding migraines and holds mounting symptoms of MS at bay?

'Without it I can't work, see, hold a paintbrush or eat,' Yale said. 'I'm against the abuse of drugs for recreational purposes -- they ruin a lot of lives. But I'm fighting this for the simple reason that we should be able to take care of our own health.'

On his better days, Yale gets around on crutches. A strong man, despite being diagnosed with MS two decades ago, he depends on herbs, exercise and massage.

He worries about body tremors affecting his life's work -- and the arrest tarnishing his career.

In his portfolio are portraits and sculptures of powerhouses such as John Tyson, Sam and Helen Walton, Bill Clinton, Dan Moody, Dr. Benjamin Spock and E. Fay Jones. He also loves to paint fantasy images of fairies, angels and mythological creatures.

Yale said his arrest and publicity cost him 'tens of thousands of dollars in lost business,' but he dismissed his court-appointed attorney and plans to fight the felony charge alone. It's not for himself, but for many others suffering from epilepsy, glaucoma, cancer and other ailments, he said.

Several states allow sick patients to smoke marijuana -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- and Arkansas needs to be one, Yale insisted.

'Given time, if you live long enough, each and every one of us will be where I am or have a loved one where I'm at,' he said.

In the state, an effort is under way to put an initiated act on the Nov. 2 ballot by collecting 65,000 signatures from registered voters. The 'Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act' movement was born five years ago, said Denele Campbell of West Fork, one of the founders.

'We're optimistic,' she said this week. Campbell doesn't know Yale, but 'he's exactly the type we're running this campaign for. People with a legitimate need should not have to worry about getting arrested.'

The proposed act would allow terminally and seriously ill patients to use marijuana with their doctors' approval -- under the supervision of the Arkansas Department of Health.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court continues to wrestle with the issue of whether the federal government will recognize a medical necessity exception to the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the manufacture and distribution of various drugs, including marijuana.

Greg Hoggatt, director of the Rogers/Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce's Drug Free program, said science has shown a positive effect from using marijuana's active ingredient, THC, to alleviate some symptoms. But, when marijuana is heated to a burning temperature, the side effects can be more harmful.

Most alarmingly, the drug 'decreases the immune system, and the body's ability to heal itself,' Hoggatt said.

Marijuana is Northwest Arkansas' 'most often used illegal drug, but it doesn't get the attention now because methamphetamine is so devastating,' he said.

Yale awaits his next court appearance July 14, before Benton County Circuit Judge David Clinger. He's run out of money, and even a trip to Bentonville 'totally exhausts me,' he said Friday.

'They say I won't win, but I'm not giving up. It's about people's rights to privacy and choice of medical care and religion. They can put me in jail, take my home, but I will not give them my soul.'



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