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Dustin Costa Struggles Against Invisibility


Thomas Jefferson O’Connell, MD, perused a front-page story on in the Times and said, “I’m glad the torturers are being exposed, but I can’t help thinking that the prisoners at Guantanamo get a lot more attention than Dustin Costa.” Costa is a patient of O’Connell’s who has been imprisoned in Fresno since August 2005 on cultivation charges.

According to O’Connell and attorney Bill McPike, Costa thought he was protected by state law. But state law won’t apply when he goes on trial (in November, he hopes), since the U.S. Attorney took over his case from the Merced County DA. Costa won’t even be allowed to tell the jury that the plants he was growing on the family farm were intended for medical users. Nor will his own story be allowed. This is how he told it to Dr. O’Connell:

My first encounter with marijuana came in the fall of 1968. I was a 22-year-old Marine nearing the end of my four-year enlistment. It was during this time that I was diagnosed with an anxiety/depression disorder and prescribed Librium. The Librium seemed to help, but I didn’t like the way it made me feel. A friend turned me on to marijuana, and to my amazement, my depression disappeared and gradually, as I continued to use it, I found that I was able to focus on tasks much better. I’d had a lifelong problem with focus that plagued me particularly in school. I always scored well on IQ tests, yet try as I might I barely made it through high school with a D average. Electronics School in the Marine Corps was similarly difficult.

After my honorable discharge I enrolled in a community college. I also became a regular pot smoker. Two years later I graduated with honors. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. Unfortunately, I also had a drinking problem. When I drank, generally daily, I became abusive and violent. I was only able to quit drinking in 1999 when, as a condition of receiving my first medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor in Marin County, I agreed to give up alcohol. It worked! I’ve been alcohol-free since 1999.

It was a revelation that marijuana could be an effective substitute for all kinds of addictions. Up till then, because of all the media hype, I was under the impression that only those with a catastrophic illness like cancer or AIDS could receive a doctors recommendation.

Costa made an annual drive from Fresno to Marin to get his letter of approval renewed. In 2002 he switched doctors to shorten the drive and saw O’Connell in Oakland. “My entire perspective on medical marijuana was about to take a giant leap forward,” Costa recounted in a letter from prison. “Doctor O’Connell is a retired thoracic surgeon who once was a Lt. Colonel in the Army Medical Corps during Viet-Nam. He, too, asked me detailed questions about my alcohol and drug history. He showed great interest in my troubled childhood and in my work history. He explained that he had discovered a relationship between mental health and substance abuse. The key was that substance abusers were self-medicating most often to treat anxiety and stress. He explained that self-medicating with marijuana was a far safer and more effective choice. ‘Safer than aspirin, more effective than Ritalin.’

“He said most of his patients had anxiety/stress issues and pot worked better for them than pharmaceutical alternatives or illegal drugs. I had suspected so from my own experience, but now I had confirmation from a medical doctor I left the office with a diagnosis of a ‘mood disorder.’ This was different than for relief of alcoholism, though similar. It seemed more in tune with my core problem. I would learn later that ‘mood disorder’ covers a broad range of anxiety and depression-related disorders, including ADD, ADHD, BiPolar disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, autism, and so on.

“Even though medical marijuana is unavailable at present for prisoners, there is tremendous interest. I’ve interviewed more than 100 [inmates] so far and found that almost all have suffered from debilitating mental disorders. About 75% of those interviewed suffer from serious substance abuse of hard drugs or alcohol. Others had anger management issues. In every case, I was told that based on their prior experience and knowledge, they could successfully replace the offending substance, or better manage their anger with marijuana.”

Costa forwards a clipping from the Fresno Community Alternative on the racist nature of drug-law enforcement. Although only 22 percent of illicit drug users are black or Latino, 80 percent of those in prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars–a third of them for selling or possessing marijuana. Prohibitionist flacks reassure the public that most of those convicted of possession are “dealers” who have pled down to possession, but this is misleading. The line between evil dealers and benign users is very vague. Many working people who want to smoke high-grade marijuana but can’t afford $400 for an ounce will buy, say, a half pound for $2000 from an acquaintance, sell six ounces to friends for $350/per, thus getting their own two ounces for free (in exchange for the labor involved in distribution, and the risk).

FRED GARDNER is the editor of O’Shaughnessy’s Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group. He can be reached at:



Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at

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