Friday January 28 7:14 PM ET
By CATHERINE STRONG Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - A woman with multiple sclerosis was convicted of drug possession on Friday for lighting a marijuana cigarette in a congressman's Capitol Hill office when she felt the onset of an attack related to her illness.
Judge Stephanie Duncan-Peters of the District of Columbia Superior Court ruled in a nonjury trial that the woman, Renee Emry Wolfe, 39, of Ann Arbor, Mich., had not met the burden of proof necessary for a medical defense.
She could have sentenced the mother of four to six months in jail and fined her $1,000, but instead ordered Wolfe to perform 50 hours of community service and pay court costs of $50.
"I would prefer that (Wolfe) return to her home and deal with her medical condition in whatever way she and her doctor deem appropriate,'' Duncan-Peters said.
Marijuana is banned by the federal government, although voters in six states have approved laws allowing the drug to be used for medical purposes. Nearly 70 percent of voters in Washington, D.C., voted last year to allow the medical use of marijuana, but Congress has blocked the measure from becoming law.
Wolfe went to Rep. Bill McCollum's office on Sept. 15, 1998, carrying the marijuana and a sign to protest his resolution saying marijuana is a dangerous drug that should not be legalized for medical use.
Defense lawyer Jeffrey Orchard said Wolfe intended to simply tell the congressman about her experience with marijuana, but started to feel tense. She lighted the marijuana cigarette only when she believed she was about to suffer an attack of shaking and muscle tightening caused by her condition, he said.
A neurologist, Dr. Denis Petro, testified that marijuana works as a muscle relaxant, allowing people with multiple sclerosis to control their shaking, or spasticity. Other drugs produce severe side effects or are not as effective, he said.
Prosecutor Alex Bourelly acknowledged "this is a unique case, and a unique defense,'' but said it was clear Wolfe was guilty of marijuana possession under the law in Washington.
The judge said the "case comes down to whether there was a necessity for (Wolfe) to possess marijuana on that day in the District of Columbia.''
"There isn't any evidence she was suffering an attack of spasticity at the time she was in the congressman's office,'' Duncan-Peters concluded.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that afflicts
more than 300,000 Americans. Wolfe has difficulty walking and usually sits
in a wheelchair.