Medical marijuana patient gets pounds of pot back
Most folks go their entire lives without having a police officer hand them pounds of pot.
Matthew Zugsberger isn't one of those folks.
On Wednesday, Zugsberger saw the first portion of the 11-plus pounds of marijuana seized from him in February returned by Kent Police. Included in the bunch, he said, was a quarter pound of hashish of which Zugsberger remains quite fond.
A Californian with a prescription for medical marijuana, Zugsberger was arrested with his girlfriend at a Kent pharmacy after a police canine found the pot and a scale in the trunk of his car. In a claim not supported by police statements, Zugsberger says investigators accused him of hoping to import pot from Canada.
"They kept saying that I came to Washington to buy pot out of Canada," Zugsberger said. "Why the hell would I buy pot from Canada if I have a field of it in my backyard?"
Felony drug charges were filed, a deal was struck and Zugsberger ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession. Zugsberger was freed on three-months probation.
His marijuana, though, remained in custody.
At issue, attorneys for both sides allowed, was the variance in medical marijuana laws between the two states. While California and Washington both allow the medical use of marijuana, Washington allows patients to possess 1 ½-pounds pot while California permits them five pounds.
Late last month, Zugsberger's defense attorney Aaron Pelley filed a petition with King County Superior Court demanding that the pot be returned to Zugsberger. In a compromise, Pelley said, the judge ruled that Zugsberger would be returned his marijuana in 1 ½-pound portions at seven-day increments.
"To my knowledge, it was the first time anyone has asked for their marijuana back," said Pelley, who is active with the marijuana-law reform organization Cannabis Defense Coalition. "It's the weirdest case I've ever dealt."
Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said prosecutors argued against he immediate return of Zugsberger's full load of pot in part because doing so would violate state law.
"Although Mr. Zugsberger had valid documentation from the state of California, he had far more marijuana than what state law allows," Goodhew said. "When he asked for his marijuana back, our department asked the court to follow Washington state law and the department of health guidelines."
Goodhew said the plea agreement recognized both those circumstances -- that Zugsberger had both a legal right to possess marijuana, and that he arguably had 10 times the amount allowed under state law.
Zugsberger said he began using marijuana medicinally in 2007 to manage nausea associated with a severe injury he sustained while working as an underwater welder in the Gulf of Mexico.
Immediately after the accident, he was prescribed prescription pain killers derived from opium. Zugsberger said the drugs gave him liver problems, and he became concerned about his dependence on them.
While he doesn't support a blanket legalization of marijuana, he said the drug has helped him manage his injuries. But, Zugsberger said, it has left him at odds with authorities that refuse to recognize his California-endorsed pot prescription.
That, he argued, amounts to a violation of Constitutional guarantees that a license issued in one state will be honored by the whole.
"Full faith and credit is what keeps us together," Zugsberger said. "No matter what our different views are, we are one people and a document issued in one state should be honored in every state."
Goodhew said prosecutors did not take issue with Zugsberger's prescription -- which, unlike those issued in Washington, carries a raised seal -- but with the size of his stash.
"The fact remains," Goodhew said, "that Mr. Zugsberger had way too much marijuana."
By LEVI PULKKINEN
Last updated September 16, 2009 9:32 p.m. PT