Cultivating Injustice

The perfectly imperfect case for legalizing medical marijuana

Feb 23, 2000 at 4:00 am
He suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating illness for which there is no cure.

His home is burglarized and he calls police for help, only to wind up getting arrested himself when they discover he is cultivating marijuana, which he says he smokes to relieve the pain that racks his body every day.

He gets 30 days' shock time in the county slammer, followed by something he considers worse: probation terms that require him to stay drug-free for the next five years.

He doesn't know quite what to do.

Meet Jim Hammond, Overland resident, the perfectly imperfect case study for legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. His story is detailed in this week's RFT on page 14.

The perfectly imperfect case? Right, because there are just enough nuances to explain why the legal system would react harshly to a fellow who spends much of his time living in wheelchair and subsists on a disability check and whose conviction for cultivating marijuana was a first offense.

Overland police say they found 89 pot plants in the house, and Chief James Herron was effusive: "In my 30 years (of law enforcement), I've seen some pretty good cultivation. This was magnificent. This was a very elaborate, very expensive hydroponic system. Officers were dumbfounded."

Police also say they suspected Hammond of dealing pot, although they apparently didn't have enough evidence to charge him with it. That said, law enforcement's suspicions should have had nothing to do with the disposition of the case, but it certainly appears to have been one of those nuances that made a difference in the end.

On the other side is an argument that didn't seem to matter, ultimately: that Hammond didn't grant the officers access to his house and that his arrest was thus the result of an illegal search. Hammond's attorney, Timothy Hogan, argued that point unsuccessfully in court.

In any event, from the standpoint of those who run the legal system, this wasn't just your average fellow caught with a couple of joints or even with a couple of pot plants in his house. This was a full-fledged marijuana producer in their eyes, a distant cousin to the Medellin drug lords, if you will, the very sort of criminal mind they have been programmed to seek out and destroy in the so-called war on drugs.

Thus the system was capable of blindfolding itself to the obvious reality here: that its "catch" was a harmless victim for whom the shock-time sentence was a hideous injustice and that the ongoing requirement for him to refrain from the medical treatment that best eases his pain is downright cruel.

Indeed, anti-drug enforcers would see this as a light and humane sentence. After all, Hammond's record will be cleansed if he just stays "clean," and it's not as if he was sent away to the state penitentiary for life.

Asked whether it was really necessary to require this MS sufferer to stay "clean" when "clean" undoubtedly means more suffering, Marilyn Ruemmler, the prosecutor on the case, was incredulous:

"Do you hear what you're saying?" Ruemmler asked the RFT. "There's no way that we're going to agree to allow someone to use drugs while they're on probation. It's illegal. There's no way for us to make it legal. We don't make the laws; we just enforce them."

That's understandable enough, but it should drive home a point that's apparently lost even on progressive Missouri legislators: As long as Missouri law doesn't provide compassion for MS and glaucoma sufferers and patients undergoing chemotherapy and people living with AIDS -- all of whom may benefit from the physician-prescribed use of marijuana to relieve symptoms -- it cannot be assumed that understanding law-enforcement officials can or will fill the void.

You don't hear of many cases like Hammond's, and there's probably a presumption that someone quietly smoking a joint to ease his or her suffering isn't going to be bothered by the law, but the reality is that it takes an imperfect case like this one to show how cold-hearted the system can be. Anyone needing an ongoing supply of marijuana for medical reasons must either grow it or buy it on a regular basis, placing them in the very position Hammond was in.

This is no hardened criminal here, just a guy who took a big risk to try to make the best of a horrible situation and who -- right here in 21st-century America -- is paying the price. All the ranting of idiots like Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey can't change his reality, or that of anyone like him.

This is precisely why Missouri ought to join the six other states (and the District of Columbia) whose voters have approved initiatives legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, mostly with overwhelming margins and always over the strident opposition of a frothing Clinton administration hell-bent on making Ronald Reagan seem a flower child by comparison.

Don't hold your breath, of course. Columbia, Mo., attorney Dan Viets, who chairs the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and also heads the Missouri chapter, says his group lacks the money needed to pursue a ballot initiative. As for the Legislature?

"Apparently our elected representatives don't have the courage to debate the issue, despite the fact that public opinion in Missouri, as it is nationally, is strongly in favor of allowing doctors and patients to use medical marijuana," Viets said.

So Missourians like Jim Hammond will likely have to wait years for the inevitable legalization of medical marijuana, as study after study confirms what the National Institutes of Health has already found: that smoked marijuana is in some cases the best available treatment for nausea and pain for people living with a wide range of serious illnesses.

While those people wait and suffer, government drug warriors will continue to warn that legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes is just a ploy by those of us who would legalize it in general -- God forbid -- and that medical marijuana is a gateway to recreational marijuana in the very same way that pot itself is a gateway to cocaine and heroine.

How many people you know have smoked pot? How many cocaine and heroin addicts do you know? Some gateway. And how many millions of American children are hooked on morphine and Valium because those drugs can legally be prescribed by a doctor?

The answers are pretty obvious, and in a perfect world, the questions wouldn't need to be asked. But we don't live in a perfect world.

And Jim Hammond is a perfect example.