Medical marijuana grower slapped with stiff sentence
August 7, 1999
By Correspondent Rusty Dornin
SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- It was no secret that B.E. Smith grew marijuana on his farm in Trinity County, California. He even told police about his agricultural pursuits.
Smith said he grew marijuana for sick people whose doctors recommended it for treatment. That's legal under California's medical marijuana law.
But when Smith grew pot on federal land, he was arrested and convicted for marijuana possession and cultivation. This week, he was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
To supporters of medical marijuana, Smith is a political prisoner, tangled between the will of the people of California and federal officials with no tolerance for medical marijuana.
"This is an issue of compassion, and patients are caught in the middle of this politicking," says Thomas Ballanco, Smith's attorney. "(He) was brave enough to stand up and put his foot in the middle of that wheel and say, 'If some patient has to go to jail, it's going to be me.'"
But during Smith's trial, U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell, who also was the judge in the Unabomber trial, banned any testimony about medical use of marijuana or California's law permitting the practice.
Woody Harrelson a character witness
When actor Woody Harrelson showed up as a character witness, he accused the judge of keeping the truth from the jury -- and was nearly jailed for contempt.
Smith's case marked the first time the federal government has aggressively prosecuted someone who claimed to be growing pot for medical purposes. Some critics say Smith was looking for a fight by growing his plants on federal land, a charge rejected by his wife, Mary.
"He's done this out of compassion -- not to cram it into the government's face but because he believes in it with all his heart," she says.
Voters in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska have all approved laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana, and similar measures are being considered in seven other states. But according to legal experts, these laws don't hold much weight in federal court.
"Federal law is supreme, and the state proposition, notwithstanding, is meaningless," said Don Heller, a former U.S. attorney.
Calling Smith "beyond rehabilitation," Judge Burrell handed him a longer sentence than prosecutors had recommended.
Asked what he plans to do when he gets out of prison, Smith made it clear that the conviction didn't change his philosophy about marijuana use.
"When I get out, I'm going to smoke a big joint," he said.
Federal report reignites medical marijuana debate
California - Medical Use of Marijuan Initiative Statute
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