June 7, 2002
By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
There was surprisingly little smoke in the air as close to 200 people marched on federal offices in Santa Rosa on Thursday to protest U.S. laws that conflict with California's medical marijuana law.
The most obvious among a few to light joints was Charles "Eddie" Lepp, whose health problems helped him win acquittal on marijuana cultivation charges from a Lake County jury in 1998.
Lepp said he wasn't smoking to underscore a point.
"I light up any goddamn time and any goddamn place I want to," he said, strolling before the entry to the Sonoma Avenue building that houses the local office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The demonstration, which began with a march from Juilliard Park, succeeded in closing the federal building's front entrance for about 90 minutes.
"DEA, go away!" protesters chanted.
"Arrest terrorists, not patients," one sign said.
"Arrest my suffering, not me," said another.
One woman used a walker. Some were in wheelchairs, including Gary LaBonte, an 11-year-old cancer patient who said he has been using Marinol to help ease his pain and improve his appetite during chemotherapy. Marinol is a legal, prescription pill that contains the active ingredient of marijuana.
"This is an issue that goes across age lines," said LaBonte's adult friend, Michael Ellenwood, who said he uses marijuana to ease the pain and muscle contractions of muscular dystrophy. "It goes across economic lines. It goes across social lines. It's a medical issue and should be treated as such."
A single counter-protester carried a sign highlighting "the flaw in the law." Doug Bowman said he voted for Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that legalized medical marijuana use in California, but now believes it's exploited by criminals without legitimate medical claims.
The demonstration was one of at least 55 DEA offices around the country, but organizers said the Santa Rosa protest had added momentum because the agency shut down a marijuana-buyers club on West College Avenue last week.
Two men were arrested there on suspicion of cultivating marijuana.
California juries have acquitted defendants who claimed medical necessity under Proposition 215, but federal courts have refused to recognize a medical defense to marijuana charges.
A federal judge recently ruled that clubs like the Aiko Compassion Center in Santa Rosa have no constitutional right to distribute marijuana.
More litigation is expected.
Six of the Santa Rosa protesters had planned to seek arrest through undisclosed acts of civil disobedience but were thwarted by the building's closure.
Acting Santa Rosa Police Cmdr. Nick Sensley persuaded them not to go through with the plan, saying police would only make arrests if federal officials asked for them.
"They're not going to do that, so we're not going to do that," Sensley said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.