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Medical Marijuana Case Heads to Trial: Civil Disobedience Case could have Statewide Impact

Eartha Melzer - July 15th, 2004
There was a pony-tailed man with a pinwheel among the crowd gathered to support multiple sclerosis sufferer and medicinal marijuana user Matthew Barber at the court house on Tuesday, July 6. But there was also a former magistrate, a kindergarten teacher and a retired cop at the rally. And no tie-dye in sight.
Inside the courthouse, employees wondered what the big deal was -- marijuana possession cases are not typically crowded affairs -- but the lobby was full, there were note-taking reporters and a camera crew and the judges looked apprehensive.
Nine states have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana -- some for only a few narrowly defined ailments, and in California for any condition a doctor feels appropriate.
In August, voters in Detroit will vote on a ballot initiative that would make medical use of marijuana legal. Ann Arbor voters face a similar proposal in November.
In Traverse City, Barber faces a maximum $2,000 fine and a year in jail for possession of marijuana.

Prosecutor Dennis LaBelle said that when this case goes to trial his office plans to file a motion to suppress all discussion of the medicinal use of marijuana.
LaBelle doesn’t want to see the 12-foot-long file that chronicles Barber’s struggle with MS. He doesn’t want to hear the gruesome details of the failed treatment attempts. He doesn’t want jurors to know that a doctor recommended Barber use marijuana and that the New England Journal of Medicine has endorsed the medical use of marijuana for terminally and seriously ill patients.
“He (Barber) is in a very difficult position,” said Tim Beck, chairman of the Detroit Coalition for Compassionate Care, the group sponsoring the Detroit initiative. There has never been a full test of the medical necessity defense in Michigan.
Beck laid out some history:
Peter McWilliams, author of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: the Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in America,” used marijuana to control the violent nausea caused by his AIDS treatment drugs. Arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in Wayne County, he argued that his marijuana use was medically necessary and introduced medical evidence. The district court where he was charged moved the case to circuit court, where the judge, Kim Worthy, allowed the necessity defense. The prosecution appealed and the case went to a court of appeals, which overturned Worthy’s ruling. McWilliams appealed to the Michigan State Supreme Court but before the case could be heard he died in jail -- his nausea uncontrolled, he asphyxiated on vomit.

According to a jail study commissioned by Grand Traverse County, 95% of people charged with crimes in the county plead guilty. Only a tiny portion of cases ever go to trial. Barber wants to fight his possession of marijuana charge even though he admits using marijuana and says he will not stop using it. He is committing an act of civil disobedience and hopes to present his story to a jury of his peers who will have mercy on him.
Dan Solano, a member of Police for Drug Law Reform, was in the courthouse to support Barber. He compared the struggle for medical marijuana to past civil rights movements. It took a lot of organizing and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in this country until the 1930s, he pointed out. Veteran civil rights activist and attorney Dean Robb sees the case in a similar light.
“In the civil rights movement they were breaking laws because they were racist laws,” said Robb.
In some cases this would lead to “jury nullification,” where a jury acquits the defendant because the law is unjust.
“Though they are not often told this, juries have the right to decide cases based on common sense,” said professor Ann Fagan Ginger, author of “Jury Selection in Civil and Criminal Trials,” speaking from her home in California.
Although medical marijuana use is illegal in Michigan, a 1996 national opinion poll sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 85% of people surveyed favor the idea of making marijuana legally available for medical uses where it has been proven effective for treating a problem.

GRAND PLANS: In just over one year of ownership by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, close to $5 million in renovations have been completed at the 660-room, 900-acre Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme.
Overall, renovations and upgrades are expected to total $10 in a three-phase makeover. Wireless high speed Internet access installed in all hotel and tower guest rooms was the finishing touch to the most recent renovations completed in June as part of phase two. Approximately $5 million is planned to be spent in phase three between November 2004 and June 2005 renovating all 186 guest rooms in the Tower as well as the Trillium Restaurant and Lounge.

SHOW US THE MONEY: Congressman Bart Stupak wants to know how Homeland Security grants have been spent, particularly in Northern Michigan where funds have been lacking.
“After 9/11, the nation finally realized what we in law enforcement have known for years -- that there was a huge gap in how we respond to natural and terrorist-related disasters,” said Stupak in a release. “First responder agencies could not talk to each other and that inability to communicate was a key factor in the deaths of at least 121 firefighters. But since then, it appears very little has been done to address this gaping hole in our national security.”
Out of $4.4 billion allotted to Homeland Security, grants totalling $100 million were supposed to help improve communication between police, firefighters and other agencies in case of a terrorist attack. But Stupak says that Northern Michigan has seen little in the way of funding.
“Where has the money gone? No one seems to be able to give me a specific answer. Meanwhile, the first responders in my large, rural border district are struggling to find the resources to make these upgrades, and they’re coming up with very little,” said Stupak. “Something is very wrong when we make these demands of our first responders but then fail to provide them the resources to meet them.”
Stupak is currently working with a Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee to track down funding information and route dollars to the region.

MERCURY MENACE: Every lake within Michigan is contaminated with toxic mercury pollution emitted by coal-burning power plants, according to PIRGIM, a public interest group with an environmental focus.
Even though enforcing the Clean Air Act would require coal-burning power plants to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent, the Bush administration recently proposed to allow six times more mercury than that into the air every year for the next decade, claims Megan Owens, a PIRGIM field director. “Michigan’s power plants emit over 2,500 pounds of mercury into our environment every year. Wisconsin’s power plants emits approximately 2,000 pounds of mercury, some of which ends up in Michigan’s lakes and rivers.”
She claims the Bush administration’s proposal would put millions of children at
elevated risk of learning disabilities and other neurological disorders – including effects of mercury exposure in the womb. One in six women of childbearing age has levels of mercury in her blood that are unsafe for a developing fetus.
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