California man hopes to change Louisiana’s marijuana law
THIBODAUX — When Matthew Zugsberger surveys his California garden, he sees what he calls a “beautiful” sight: dozens of marijuana plants in different stages of growth. Their leaves will be smoked, sold or given away, he says, to other people with medical marijuana prescriptions.
Such a garden — legal in the state where Zugsberger lives — would be illegal in Louisiana because the state has no law permitting medical use or possession of marijuana.
But Zugsberger, who faces drug charges in Lafourche Parish, aims to change that.
Zugsberger is scheduled to appear in Judge John LeBlanc’s courtroom Thursday morning. He seeks to quash the indictment charging him with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute.
“The smartest thing they could do if they don’t want to make case law is to drop the case,” said Zugsberger, a 33-year-old who suffered a collapsed spine while working as a deep sea diver in 2005.
Zugsberger argues that he had a prescription from a doctor in his home state for more than two pounds of marijuana that State Police seized from him in Thibodaux on June 19, 2008. Medical marijuana helps ease his pains better than other drugs, Zugsberger said.
But prosecutors dismiss this argument, stating his prescription is simply not valid under Louisiana law.
The question posed in Zugsberger’s case is one of “first impression” in Louisiana, his attorney Jerri Smitko of Houma wrote in a memorandum to Judge LeBlanc. The term “first impression” means that a case asks a legal question that a state’s courts have not previously ruled upon.
Nearly 16 months since his arrest, Zugsberger has not had a pre-trial hearing and his marijuana remains in State Police custody in Baton Rouge.
He has stated that the Lafourche District Attorney’s Office is stalling because they do not want to be blamed for the legalization of medical marijuana in Louisiana.
That is simply not true, said Lafourche District Attorney Cam Morvant II.
He pointed out most of the case’s delays were the result of defense requests to have court dates moved. The length of the delays is not “earth-shattering,” he added.
Further, Morvant guaranteed Zugsberger will get his wish to attempt making case law.
“I’m going to give him the opportunity to do that,” Morvant said. “I’m going to take a much harder line and get him on the trial docket.”
Thirteen states have laws legalizing medical marijuana with a valid doctor’s prescription.
Zugsberger has a California license signed by doctor Milan Hopkins that allows him to have eight ounces of medical marijuana at any time. But that does not transfer to states, like Louisiana, which don’t have special medical marijuana laws.
That has been a point of contention for marijuana law reform advocates.
“Surely the disease or physical ailments doesn’t change because of geographic location,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Zugsberger recently earned a big victory for medical marijuana reform near Seattle, Wash.
A judge in King County ruled that police had to return 11 pounds seized from Zugsberger in February. The ruling came as part of his plea to a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge that landed him three months probation.
The judge in the case ruled that police had to return Zugsberger’s marijuana in 1 1/2-pound increments, in accordance with Washington law. California law permits citizens to have 5 pounds of medical marijuana at any given time.
The marijuana seized from Zugsberger in Louisiana will not be returned to him regardless of the outcome of his case, said Sgt. Brett Lang, a detective with the State Police’s narcotics division.
The reason is the law at the time of the seizure stated marijuana was illegal to possess, distribute or grow in Louisiana. Any change in the law could not be applied retroactively, Lang said.
By Raymond Legendre