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The 'Ganja Guru': If only Truth could set him free

Tue, May. 27, 2003
By Myriam Marquez
The Orlando Sentinel

Hanging on the precipice of states' rights in the nation's drug war is a 58-year-old San Francisco author known as the "Ganja Guru." And there lying at the bottom is a shattered Lady Justice, with no middle ground in sight.

Ed Rosenthal is no stranger to controversy. Over the years, he's written several books about the benefits of marijuana use and has even testified before Congress about the need to re-evaluate federal laws that make growing or smoking marijuana a criminal offense.

Now Rosenthal, who grew marijuana for medicinal purposes, could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Yet he had the city of Oakland's blessing to grow the cannabis. He had the voters of California's blessings. He even had the California attorney general's acknowledgment that Rosenthal, authorized by Oakland's city commissioners to grow marijuana solely for the use of seriously ill patients, has state law on his side.

No matter. Rosenthal has become the obsession of federal prosecutors and a drug war run amok.

Instead of challenging California's Proposition 215 or the city of Oakland's ordinance that allowed Rosenthal to grow marijuana as "an officer of the city," the feds went after the little guy who grew the pot for city-regulated medical marijuana clubs that sold marijuana to patients whose doctors had prescribed it.

It was easy to get a conviction for Rosenthal because under legal precedent he couldn't use the truth as a defense. The Truth.

Incredibly, jurors never heard that Rosenthal had the city's permission to grow marijuana. They never knew the plants were grown solely for a narrowly defined purpose: to ease the comfort of very sick people.

The judge simply wouldn't let Rosenthal's lawyers call witnesses who could explain why Rosenthal was growing more than 3,000 plants in a warehouse. And a federal appeals court backed the judge because federal law takes precedence.

So jurors convicted Rosenthal earlier this year as if he were your typical drug kingpin. Most of the jurors did an about-face, though, once the trial ended and they heard the rest of the story, i.e., The Truth.

Judge Charles R. Breyer (brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer) denied Rosenthal a new trial, writing that there's legal precedence "since the Civil War" that local laws have no bearing in federal court.

Does common sense matter at all? Who in their right mind would think Rosenthal got a fair trial?

The feds have used the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in another Oakland case, which outlawed the sale of marijuana at a cannabis club, as a way to go after Rosenthal as if he were a drug pusher selling crack to kids. Yet that 1991 ruling was limited to the club's attempt to use the common-law medical-necessity defense to sell cannabis. It did not deal directly with Prop 215, states' rights or Oakland's laws.

The drug war has wasted billions of dollars over the decades, focusing on the users of a plant that, while certainly not healthy to the lungs and the body if abused, comes nowhere close to the severe medical effects and societal chaos that, say, cocaine or heroin can cause.

And the thing is, the federal government doesn't care to know The Truth. It has refused to evaluate marijuana's ability to help very sick people suffering from debilitating and deadly diseases, such as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Yet it's perfectly legal for doctors to prescribe expensive narcotics, even though some patients have died from overdoses.

Any drug can be abused. It's their health benefits that medical professionals weigh against the risks. That's what California and eight other states focused on when they approved medicinal use of marijuana to help patients wasting away from AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other diseases, and to overcome the reactions to chemotherapy after cancer treatment. Smoking pot helps very ill people reduce nausea so they can eat and get stronger.

Keeping jurors in the dark to punish a man who sought to help severely ill people cope - now that's criminal.

Copyright © 2003, Tallahassee Democrat