The Civics Teacher
Bill Britt of Long Beach is the walking, talking soul of Prop 215 -him and a few hundred other people, up and down the state, who circulated petitions back in ’96 and have fought tirelessly ever since, without much material reward, and risking retribution, to see that the law gets implemented.
Britt and his allies have convinced the Long Beach officials to adopt a policy whereby the police, upon finding marijuana plants, don’t confiscate them until the status of the grower has been clarified. Few jurisdictions in Southern California are so enlightened.
Britt is also organizing an Association of Patient Advocates to educate and encourage disabled people to become advocates for themselves and others, and to lobby for improved health care.
Cannabis helps Britt, 45, cope with post-polio syndrome, epilepsy, and several other conditions. He uses a cane, crutches, or a motorized chair to get around, depending on how much mobility he needs and/or pain he’s in. Fortunately, he can drive. And his mother had the good sense years ago to buy a ranch house on a working-class street in Long Beach, so Britt has a secure base from which to operate.
He has a prescription for Marinol but doesn’t like the heavy-downer effect that comes on suddenly. Nor can he afford $1,100 for a month’s supply, or $800 with the discount to which his disabilities entitle him. Eight hundred a month is all he gets to live on.
Britt medicates the old-fashioned way, lighting up a joint every hour or two. Since his political work takes him to city halls and courthouses from San Diego to Ventura, there have been numerous occasions -"at least 37," he says-on which he’s had to convince sheriffs, police officers, bailiffs, and other government agents that the law’s on his side.
Recently Britt had to employ his knowledge of the law on behalf of a friend in Bell, a small city between Compton and Commerce in L.A. County. Here’s how he tells it:
"Last Tuesday (Aug. 17) I went to my friend Marie’s house with a couple of friends to pick her up to go see the band Cubensis that plays in Sunset Beach. When we arrived, I saw a City of Bell police car parked in front of her house with her adult son sitting on the hood. She lives in a trailer park, so to be safe I drove out of the park and parked on the street and rode my scooter in, leaving my friends and my medicine (just in case) in the car.
"I first encountered a Bell police officer and a rookie he was training and I told them I was a friend of Marie’s and asked if they knew about SB 420 and that it went into effect last January.
"The officer told me that they were probably not going to arrest her, but they were going to take her plants. ‘Are you going to rip them up?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied. I told him that if he took her plants he was not only violating the law, but would force her into the streets to try to buy something from criminals and she wouldn’t know what chemicals might be in it (if she could afford it). He said he was not breaking the law and that ‘all he knew’ was he was enforcing Health and Safety Code 11359 (the ban on cultivation).
‘"Ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ I told him. ‘Prop. 215 became law eight years ago and SB 420 eight months ago. If you had read the law, you would know that cultivation is exempt from the law for patients and their caregivers who qualify.’
"I had a copy of SB 420. I always carry one with me and I recommend that all patients and caregivers do, also. I gave it to him to read, but he just threw it on the hood of the patrol car. By that time a supervising officer showed up and he was also completely clueless about the law and what to do. When I suggested he read the copy of the law that I provided, he said ‘They have all kinds of crazy stuff on the web,’ and refused to read it.
"I continued to educate them about the Mower decision (treat it like a prescription), and when they mentioned federal law, I spoke about the Raich decision (commerce clause doesn’t apply, feds have no jurisdiction in cases that do not involve money transactions or cross state lines). I also mentioned article 3 Section 3.5 of the California Constitution which says that officials of the state must enforce state law regardless of federal law.
"The conversation became heated at times and at one point I told the very arrogant officer he had a ‘god complex’ (probably not a good idea) and that he was not above the law, and I again reminded them that ignorance of the law is no excuse. I used my anger to keep me assertive and focused, and my fear to keep me from becoming antagonistic or going too far.
"After I had impressed on them that they were in violation of the law, they began looking at my copy of SB 420. I pointed out 11362.765, which exempts possession, cultivation, transportation and other violations by qualified patients and caregivers. (11357,58,59,60,66,66.5 or 70)
"At one point the officer said that his main concern was that there were children in the trailer park and that they could find the plants and ‘Pull the leaves off’.
" ‘Just because it can happen doesn’t mean it will happen,’ I replied. ‘We can’t eliminate every danger in the world just because it MAY harm children.’ (Besides the fact that ingesting cannabis has never caused a single death)
"Eventually the watch commander showed up and we had a short conversation and he left. When he returned he told me he had spoke with a very knowledgeable district attorney who told him the patient had to have a current letter to be qualified. Marie was unable to find her current letter and had only supplied them with a letter that was two years old. They had tried to call the doctor but only got an answering machine and had no luck with the club cards she also had. I assured him that she had a current letter, because I had taken her to the doctor to get it.
"He told me that all that mattered was that he had the right to take her plants and arrest her. ‘That’s right, I said, ‘but the law also gives you the right NOT to. Just because you can doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Also, if you do, it’s just going to waste a lot of everyone’s time because she’s going to file a complaint or a lawsuit and any charges will eventually be dropped.’
"I stressed the waste of time, mentioning they could be spending that time going after real criminals -‘murderers robbers, and rapists.’ I reminded them that they were public servants and that we were their bosses, at which point one officer asked me for a raise and I said ‘Sure, if you stop wasting time and money on medical marijuana patients.’
"Just as it appeared that they were going to take her plants (just because they could), the original officer approached the watch commander saying, ‘How about if she agrees to move her plants inside, we will not take them?’ I was shocked. I had assumed that there was no way of negotiating with the police. But not only had they listened to what I said, I actually had an influence in their final decision not to rip up Marie’s plants.
Before and after I arrived, the officers asked to see inside the mobile home. Marie refused. I told them she would rather they not, and I mentioned she was probably reluctant to give up her right to privacy. After deciding not to take her plants, the watch commander asked again, saying they wanted to make sure she wasn’t selling or had scales. I asked to let me talk with her and we decided that because she had nothing to hide, and because they were making a concession for us, we could reciprocate and let the supervisor walk through the house without searching.
"I’m afraid to think what would have happened if I had not just happened to show up early that evening. One of Marie’s disabilities makes it difficult to communicate when she is under great stress (especially around police or authority figures). It’s a shame that in order to have everyday constitutional rights today you must either be a lawyer or rich enough to hire one.
"It is essential that we educate ourselves about the law and our rights, and speak out when the law is being violated. Status quo only happens because we let it. If you want change you have to MAKE it happen, it won’t happen on it’s own.
"While many Northern California police, politicians and medical professionals embrace the law making medicinal cannabis available to people who are sick, disabled and dying, Southern California still lives in fear and ignorance. Even though we have many times the number of people who are suffering.
"Unfortunately, it has been left up to these suffering people to fight the front lines of this battle. The fight for truth and the right to be free from pain has been left up to our most vulnerable citizens."
Bill Britt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FRED GARDNER can be contacted at email@example.com