Thousands are anxiously watching the case against a retired stone mason as they move into closing arguments
(PORT ORCHARD, Wash.) - Thirty or so miles outside Tacoma, Washington, in Kitsap County there has been a storm brewing. It's been coming for almost two years, and for the last two weeks, the force of the impact has been hitting the courtroom, but hard.
Kitsap County may not be a place that every one is acquainted with, and after you read this story, it may indeed be one of the last places you ever want to visit.
Though we generally accept that people are hard working, honest and congenial throughout the Pacific NorthWest, it so happens that the very core of the Kitsap County government has displayed none of those considerable attributes.
The majority of Washingtonians voted together in 1998 for the health and safety of its ill residents. Supporting the medical use of marijuana was not a hard choice for most, and the state has adjusted very well overall to bringing these sick patients into the fold.
Contrary to these ideals seems to be one particular man: Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge (pronounced howgy). His opinion of the thousands of legal medicinal use patients seems to be nothing less than disapproval.
The story goes like this:
In May of 2007, Pamela and Bruce Olson's Olalla, Washington home was raided by the WestNET (West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team) drug task force, and they were both arrested. Upon entry to their home, the police poisoned the family’s black Labrador dogs, costing $2,000 in vet bills to save them.
The Olson's are both registered medical marijuana patients, approved by the State of Washington to grow and use the herb medicinally. They say they were obeying the law, but nevertheless, they each faced the same "distribution" charge of illegal possession of marijuana with the intent to sell for growing 48 plants.
Ironically, Bruce and Pam Olsen had no usable cannabis at the time of their arrest. The couple was attempting their first crop, when an informant led the WestNET Drug Task Force to search them. They had a total of 12 flowering plants that were three feet tall, and 18 little cuttings that were less than eight inches tall, which is less than recommended by THCF Medical Clinic.
Even so, prosecutors claim that the Olson's exceeded the state's 60-day supply rule allowed under the 1998 initiative, and that they were selling marijuana, not just using it medicinally. The Olson's maintain that they were not selling on the black market, and their medicine was grown for personal use. Still, the prosecution pressed on helping make this case the "poster child" for medicinal marijuana advocates across the United States.
To finance their legal defense, the Olson's had to sell their home of 20 years. They now live in a RV parked on a friend's property.
In April 2008, a Superior Court judge ruled that 51-year old Pamela Olson could not use the medical marijuana law as a defense, saying that her doctor should have told her what her 60-day supply is instead of her making the determination herself. Pamela Olson was sentenced April 29th, 2008 to 60 days of house arrest, and is now serving probation, having pleaded out to avoid jail time. Her husband's trial was set for March 2009.
Perhaps not oddly enough, the judge agreed that as part of her sentence, Pamela Olson is not allowed to use medical marijuana to ease her pain, apparently because Department of Correction rules don’t "recognize" medical marijuana.
Unfortunately, Washington's original medical marijuana law that was passed by voters in 1998 contained only an affirmative defense for authorized patients, in that law enforcement officials were still able to arrest patients, who then faced the burden of proving their innocence in court.
Washington medicinal marijuana advocates say that more progressive prosecutors like King County’s Dan Satterberg recognized that hauling patients into court was a waste of time and taxpayer money, and didn’t do it. But that is not the case with Russ Hauge, who has turned into a major focus of the anger in this case.
When questioned on wasting tax payer money on the Olson case, Hauge said, "We had no special expenditures for this case. We didn’t fly in any expert witnesses, and the prosecutor isn’t getting paid overtime." Two weeks of court, and a witness flown from Oklahoma. One would think that could total up sizeably.
"A lot of us who are trying to call more media attention to the Olson trial certainly want more changes to our current drug laws. No argument there," says an Olson supporter. "The problem with what Russ Hauge is doing is that he’s openly trying to undermine the current medical marijuana law in the state of Washington."
The usual "tactic", as Hauge's adversaries say, has been for his office to arrest patients, then threaten them with long prison terms until accept a plea deal. This is what happened to Pamela Olson.
54-year old Bruce Olson, however, has not plead out. For the past two weeks, he has been on trial. Over twenty people have been in court every day, observing the trial and showing their support for Olson.
"Weeks ago Dr. Orvald and I went to be interviewed by the prosecuting attorney in Port Orchard. We were both questioned separately for two hours each," Paul Stanford told Salem-News.com before the trial.
"Based upon that, we anticipated that this trial would be dismissed and the Olsons charges dropped. We are very surprised that the Kitsap County prosecutor is continuing to trial, though they know from our interviews that the Olsons had no usable marijuana."
One supporter, an Oregon medical marijuana patient, drove 200 miles to attend the trial. After one day outside the courtroom, he appealed to President Obama and others for attention to this case, attempting "to alert you to the deviant tactics being played by Kitsap County Deputy Prosecutor Alexis Foster, as well as ask for your help in this matter."
He says that he arrived a few minutes late to the hearing on Tuesday March 10th, so he waited outside the courtroom for a break, so as not to interrupt the proceedings. He had with him a notepad, with a small stop sign graphic on the notepad, which read “Stop Arresting Medical Marijuana Patients” in red.
He believed he was following the rules of the court, even the guards at the entrance of the courthouse had seen the notepad and let him in without saying a word. He was also wearing a 2-inch NORML button, which read “Medical Marijuana is NORML in Oregon”.
He says that when the jurors came out for their break, he was sitting with a few other supporters. He did not look at, nor speak to, or in any other way make contact with any of the jurors, so he was surprised to learn a few minutes later that the entire jury had been thrown out by Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Leila Mills' and that the jury selection process was starting over because "a medical marijuana activist was outside the courtroom with a sign promoting the cause."
"There are multiple witnesses to the situation, attesting that I was behaving only in a professional and courteous manner," he said. "When the Prosecutor walked by, she gave me no acknowledgment; she acted as if I didn’t exist, and I wasn’t even sure she saw me."
Foster objected on grounds that the presence of the "protester" might taint the jurors. It was a slow start.
ON WITH THE SHOW
Once the trial began, first-time Prosecutor Alexis Foster grilled witnesses, insisting on details and in many instances asking yes-or-no questions that the witnesses could not answer.
The expert witness Paul Stanford, Executive Director of THCF (The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation), was debated. The court ultimately ruled that Stanford could testify as an expert about marijuana cultivation, though not about marijuana as it relates to medical ailments, as he is not a doctor, or about the chemistry of marijuana, as he is no scientist. The THCF clinic is the source of the information the Olson's relied upon to determine how they could comply with the law, so his testimony was clearly necessary.
The authorizing doctor was also discussed at length. Foster attempted to disqualify Dr. Thomas Orvald as an expert witness, a motion Superior Court Judge Leila Mills denied. When Foster pressed the doctor about his personal income, defense attorney Thomas Balerud objected, “Dr. Orvald is not being prosecuted for tax fraud, so I think we should move on to something more substantial.”
Dr. Thomas Orvald issued Olson’s medicinal marijuana recommendation. He testified that Bruce Olson suffered from four ailments, each of which qualified him for treatment via medicinal marijuana including Hepatitis C, spinal fractures, ruptured discs, a defective hip and Barrett's disease.
Foster portrayed Dr. Orvald as a difficult and busy witness. She traveled to his Bellevue clinic Friday, March 6th, with two sheriff's detectives in tow, to do a pre-trial interview. That never happened, however, as Dr. Orvald was late, then offered to do the interview at a hotel conference room near the clinic. The prosecutor told the court that she was concerned for her safety, "given the feelings of the medical marijuana community about this case."
Orvald told the court that he sees patients about once a year, and he will approve or decline them based on their condition(s). Washington is like Oregon, in that a patient must be re-approved every year for their medical marijuana permit from the State. A doctor's signature on the application is mandatory in submitting a request.
After three hours of expert testimony from Paul Stanford and a full seven hours on the stand by Dr. Orvald, as well as others, one must wonder what Kitsap County hopes to gain. Or, if they realize what they have become.
As the "allowable limit" of marijuana was the basis of this case, it would be remiss not to note that since Pamela's trial, the law about acceptable quantities of medical marijuana has been more strictly defined in Washington.
Now, card-carrying medical marijuana patients can defend their use in open court if they have no more than 15 plants and up to 24 ounces of marijuana if they believe their supply is within a “60-day supply.” But that law didn’t exist when the Olson cases were brought forth by the enforcement team — only a vague definition dubbed the “60 day supply.”
The only witness the prosecution could come up with is a police informant, Mr. Kenny, allegedly a longtime drug addict that they flew to Washington from Oklahoma for the trial. He claims to have seen Bruce Olson sell marijuana to another person while they were driving home from work. The defense attorney called witnesses who refuted that claim. Their employer said they weren't employed until three months after WestNET raided the Olsons. Mr. Kenny, who claims to have damaged his brain with drugs and alcohol, apparently has a bad memory.
COMPASSION STARTS HERE
As is well known, access to medical marijuana is rarely, if ever, a matter of life and death to patients. However, it’s a serious quality of life issue for pain management, stimulating hunger during chemotherapy, etc., and depriving them of relief is equal to committing abuse toward that patient. Officials of any capacity should find no protection where their vow to public service has been broken. No one should be over to overrule a doctor's recommendation for a patient to use the best, legal, safe medication for their ailment. Probation or not. Eventually this obvious error will in itself, be overruled.
The Post Orchard Independent says that Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge characterizes medical marijuana advocates as “a well-organized lobby whose purpose is to see the laws changed.” Not, "supporters of the ill and sick". That may not important to Hauge, but as medical marijuana supporters have been congregating in Port Orchard to oversee this trial, they’re discovering what they call "more victims of Russ Hauge’s crusade", including a quadriplegic by the name of Glenn Musgrove, who was recently wheeled into court on a gurney. Musgrove has a hearing scheduled for next Friday, March 27th.
As sick as these patients are, the danger of using marijuana has stayed exactly the same; the real "risk" is that of being arrested. That, and being at the mercy of an unruly justice system.
In the U.S. alone, there are currently over 800,000 people incarcerated for marijuana, 90% of which are for simple possession. With 13 states standing firm as medical marijuana states and several more waiting on the sidelines, a major change in the system is immenent.
80 million Americans are known to have used marijuana, and as hundreds of thousands using it legally across our nation, the old "reefer madness" stigma is all but gone. Still, those that oppose education, cling to "old wives tales" and refuse to accept proven medical expertise will continue to find frustration as those old views are washed aside in the changing tide that is today's marijuana advocacy movement.
Closing arguments for Kitsap v. Bruce Olson are expected on Monday or Tuesday.
March 22, 2009