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Medical pot case settled

Monday, December 1, 2003
John Hall
North County Times

A tumultuous two years is over for a Temecula couple who once faced prison terms for cultivating marijuana ---- marijuana that they have always said was strictly for medicinal purposes.

In a plea agreement announced at Southwest Justice Center on Monday, Martin Victor, 51, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of furnishing an ounce of marijuana and was fined $100. Charges against his wife, LaVonne, 48, were dropped as part of the agreement.

Their attorney called it a "watershed case" because the result shows the Riverside County district attorney's office has "taken a different attitude" about medicinal marijuana.

The couple could have faced up to three years in prison if they had been convicted on the original counts of cultivating marijuana and possession of marijuana for sales.

"It's freedom," Martin Victor said after the court hearing. His wife called it both a "great relief" and "a blessing."

"It's been a long, hard road for us emotionally, physically, and financially," LaVonne Victor said. "We're not drug dealers. We want drugs off the streets just like anybody else.

"This is not a drug to us. This is a relief for what our illnesses cause."

According to a doctor's testimony at a court hearing more than a year ago, LaVonne Victor has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and acute depression, and suffers from panic attacks, while Martin Victor has been diagnosed with optical edema, or a swelling of his optic nerve.

"He was going blind," his wife said Monday. The medicinal marijuana "has helped his eyes a lot and it has helped me drastically."

The Victors are among many who have received written authorization from doctors to use marijuana under Proposition 215, a 1996 state initiative that legalized the use of marijuana as a medical treatment.

Under Prop. 215, each county in the state sets its own standard of how much marijuana people are allowed to legally grow for medicinal use. In Riverside County, no hard amount is specified.

Deputy District Attorney Quinn Baranski, who handled the plea agreement reached Monday with the Victors, said his office will be handling similar incidents "on a case-by-case basis" while further review is done.

The Victors were arrested in October 2001 after police found marijuana being cultivated at their home. Baranski said Monday that the amount seized that day was in the range of 15 pounds.

Throughout the Victors' court proceedings, that amount has been in dispute. Their attorneys have previously argued that there was only about six or seven pounds, found stored in sealed mason jars, with the remainder consisting of leaves, stems and plants with soil still attached.

Their attorney said Monday that confusion about the amount found and just how much the Victors believed they could possess and grow under Prop. 215 was one reason why the case dragged on for so long.

"The best way to say it," said San Francisco-based J. David Nick, "is that law enforcement is just not properly trained in this area (of Prop. 215). The training is so substandard."

Nick said the case has been a good learning experience for all involved.

"The checks and balances in the system worked out in this case," he said. "It's the DA's job to legally screen the actions of the police."

After doing that, Nick said, "They can see that (the Victors) had done nothing wrong.

"It's hard for law enforcement in California to accept this law, but they have to apply all laws equally," even those under Prop. 215, Nick said.

The prosecutor said the agreement reached Monday was in line with negotiations between both sides all along.

"What was important to our office was we wanted some acknowledgment of wrongdoing," Baranski said. "The defense was seeking an outright dismissal (for both people) and our office wasn't going to agree to that."

The Victors' attorney said he feels what the district attorney's office has shown in this case is that it ultimately will be fair in Prop. 215-related cases.

Nick said there are two counties in the state that have been known to have what he called "horror stories" with medicinal marijuana cases.

"San Bernardino County has easily been the worst, followed by Riverside County," he said.

Now, after Monday's agreement, Nick said Riverside County "can't be lumped in with the bad guys on this issue any longer."

The district attorney's office has now shown its "benevolence, compassion, and acceptance to the will of the voters on this matter," Nick said.

"We want to thank them on behalf of thousands of people in this county," he added. "This helps protect medicinal marijuana patients from arrest."

For the Victors, this outcome allows them to get on with their lives after more than a dozen court appearances and what LaVonne called the stress of the whole situation.

"Now I can go see my kids and see my grandbaby be born," LaVonne Victor said with a smile. "This is a tremendous breakthrough for other sick people like us."

Reacting to what happened to them, the Victors have started a group that will meet for the first time in January called the Cannabis Acceptance Project.

LaVonne Victor said they won't be selling anything or talking about how to grow marijuana when the first meeting happens at 2:30 p.m., Jan. 10, at the Temecula Library.

"We just hope to educate people more about the laws concerning medicinal marijuana," she said.

Copyright © 2003, North County Times