Wednesday, January 18, 2006

CHP Returns Seized Medical Marijuana

Hollister Free Lance

By Brett Rowland

Hollister - After refusing to obey a court order to return a Los Angeles-area man's medical marijuana for months, the Gilroy-Hollister California Highway Patrol decided last week to return the pot it confiscated during a 2004 traffic stop on Highway 156.

The decision came just eight days before a contempt of court hearing was scheduled to determine if area CHP Commander Otto Knorr had violated a San Benito County Superior Court order by not returning the marijuana. In December, local defense attorney Greg LaForge argued before Judge Steven Sanders that Knorr should return the 4 grams of medical marijuana, or face the possibility of being held in contempt of court because a judge had already issued a court order mandating the marijuana be returned.

"It's clearly a victory, a court order is a valuable tool and nobody is above the law, especially law enforcement officers themselves," LaForge said Monday. "I think (Knorr) is out of touch with his own department's guidelines, it should have never been set for a hearing."

Knorr previously told the Free Lance that while California recognizes marijuana as a medicine under certain instances, the federal government does not. He had said that he was stuck in an apparent Catch-22 between the two laws and had no authority to distribute marijuana for any purpose.

But last Thursday, LaForge received a letter from Miguel Neri, a California deputy attorney general, which stated the marijuana taken from 28-year-old Eugene Popok, would be returned. CHP officers had seized the marijuana from Popok during a traffic stop for speeding in October of 2004. LaForge does not know what ailment his client suffers requiring the use of medical marijuana.

"This matter raised a number of novel legal issues that necessarily required further analysis by the California Highway Patrol," Neri wrote in the letter. "After such deliberation, the California Highway Patrol has decided in this instance to return Mr. Popok's claimed medical marijuana."

Knorr declined to comment on the decision or how it was reached.

"A decision was made and that's all I have to say," he said.

LaForge said that instead of refusing to return the marijuana, Knorr should have immediately contact his boss or the attorney general for direction on the matter.

San Benito County District Attorney John Sarsfield was not involved in the legal battle, but said that he could sympathize with Knorr.

"He had to choice between violating a state law and a federal law," Sarsfield said. "What it really comes down to is the medical marijuana law is extremely poorly written and needs to be clarified otherwise this will continue to happen."

Sarsfield suggested the county Health Department look into issuing identification cards for medical marijuana users. If Popok had presented a valid ID card to CHP officers at the time of his arrest, the matter could have been avoided, Sarsfield said.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was not surprised by the CHP's decision to return the marijuana.

"It's a situation where law enforcement need not be so pigheaded," he said. "This has happened all throughout California, but in their mind they don't have to follow the law."

St. Pierre sees the decision as a victory for medical marijuana advocacy groups, but said more still needs to be done to protect the rights of prescription marijuana users.

"It's keeping with the precedent," he said. "In the end, the county, town or state has to return the marijuana."

However, St. Pierre did worry about the condition the marijuana. If not stored correctly, the marijuana could breakdown rapidly and lose it's medicinal value, St. Pierre said.

"(Popok) could be getting back medicine that may not be of any use to him. This guy may have more or less been ripped off of $40 to $50 worth of marijuana," St. Pierre said. "But he could have fought a good legal battle for symbolic purposes rather than being able to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the medicine."

Popok will have 60 days to claim the 4 grams of marijuana, according to a letter sent to him by Knorr last week.

"He should get back what was taken from him," LaForge said. "Now his concern is that he has to spend another $350 to fly back up here to get it."


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