In a victory for advocates of medicinal marijuana, officers of a defunct West Hollywood cannabis club were sentenced Monday to one year of probation for growing and selling marijuana to hundreds of people with cancer, AIDS and other serious ailments.
In imposing the minimum allowable sentence, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz chastised the prosecution.
"To allocate the resources of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. attorney's office in this case ... baffles me, disturbs me," the judge said.
Supporters of the defendants packed the Los Angeles courtroom as Scott Imler, Jeffrey Farrington and Jeff Yablin were ordered to obey federal drug laws, undergo random drug testing, and complete between 100 and 250 hours of community service.
Each had pleaded guilty to one felony count of a little-used federal law: maintaining an establishment for the purpose of possessing, distributing and manufacturing illegal drugs.
The men ran the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center until October 2001, when federal drug agents raided it and seized all their assets, including 559 marijuana plants.
"It was never my intention or our intention to be scofflaws or outlaws," Imler, the center's president and executive director, told the judge before sentencing.
Imler, who has lung cancer, said he and the others tried to abide by all state and federal laws when they opened the center in 1996, after California voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative that allowed sick people to use marijuana.
Some experts believe that smoking or eating the drug alleviates the pain and nausea caused by certain ailments and treatments, including chemotherapy.
Despite state laws permitting marijuana use in certain circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal law banning the possession and distribution of marijuana trumps them. Besides California, eight other states -- Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have such laws.
Since the high court ruling, 45 Californians have been arrested on federal charges for activities that are legal under state law, according to the Americans for Safe Access, a Berkeley-based medicinal marijuana advocacy group.
In reducing their sentences, Matz applied a rarely used doctrine known as lesser harm, which says "a defendant may commit a crime in order to avoid a perceived greater harm." (One common example is mercy killing.)
The judge noted that 85% of the center's 960 members have AIDS or are HIV-positive; 10% have cancer; and the rest have various other medical conditions.
"It is difficult to imagine a case where a defendant has contributed to the distribution of a controlled substance for more humanitarian reasons than what occurred here," his defense attorney, Ronald O. Kaye, argued in court papers.
Prosecutors credited the men with helping them investigate a separate drug case, in which a Bel-Air man tried unsuccessfully to use a medicinal marijuana defense, and with not fighting the government's forfeiture claims against their property.
Under federal drug forfeiture laws, authorities seized $56,000 in the center's bank account and sold its building at 7494 Santa Monica Blvd. for $1.2 million.
The city of West Hollywood and Wells Fargo Bank, which financed the purchase, are trying to force the federal government to return a portion of the money.