You can sing the praises of many courageous doctors, growers, lawyers, dispensary operators and patients’ advocates, but who has done more to implement California’s medical marijuana law than Chris Conrad in his role as an expert witness? Where the rubber really meets the road -in a rural county courthouse with a zealous district attorney trying to convince a jury that Mr. Smith’s x number of plants plus y amount of dried marijuana is proof of intent to sell- you’ll find Conrad delivering the salient facts in a knowledgeable, persuasive manner.
Conrad, 51, is from rural Maryland, and came to California in the mid-1970s. His primary and secondary education was in Catholic schools; he got his BA from Cal State (Dominguez Hills In 1980 and began making his living as a writer. In the late ’80s he found himself focused on cannabis after a niece shared some disinformation provided by a DARE instructor. Since then Conrad has written extensively about cannabis and its cultivation, and, in the process developed his expertise.
In 1992 he and his wife, activist Mikki Norris, spent six weeks in Nijmegen, Holland working for Sensi Seed Bank, a government-approved cannabis research and breeding facility. The next year they visited hemp farms in France, Holland and Hungary, and spent six months in Amsterdam running the Hash-Marijuana-Hemp Museum. In ’95 he took 20 hours of classes in “cannabis botany, agriculture, pharmo-chemistry, industrial technologies and medical use” at a symposium in Frankfurt organized by German hempsters Conrad was first qualified as an expert witness in ’94 in the Superior court of Madera County on an industrial hemp case. “Ron Kizzenski and two of his friends decided to challenge the ban on growing hemp by growing by planting 4,000 seeds on somebody’s land,” Conrad recalls. “The judge wasn’t letting in the information about hemp. I was allowed to testify to the judge, but he wouldn’t let the jury hear my testimony… the jury acquitted Kizzenski but admonished him not to do it again.” Conrad and Norris were in the wide around Dennis Peron that helped plan and carry out the Prop 215 campaign in ’95-96. No sooner had it passed than attorney general Dan Lungren tried to impose very low limits on the amounts of cannabis that patients and caregivers could grow and possess. In ’97 the expert-witness phase of Conrad’s career began in earnest. He was -and is- typically called in to refute a prosecutor’s projection of how much medical-grade cannabis a given garden will yield, and/or how much a given patient should use. To date he has appeared in about 100 cases in more than 30 counties. Numerous cases have been dismissed or settled when prosecutors got wind of the fact that Conrad would testify.
Conrad recently published a booklet called “Cannabis Yields and Dosage” that, in 20 pages, discusses every aspect of the contentious “allowable quantity” issue. It explains the reasoning behind the guidelines adopted by Sonoma, Humboldt and Santa Cruz counties (100 square feet of plant canopy and three pounds of bud per patient). It also provides a useful analysis of SB 420, the bill passed by the California legislature in 2003 to “clarify” Prop 215. SB-420, as summarized by Conrad:
Established a voluntary and confidential patient ID card program administered by the Department of Health Services but not yet implemented. Defines medical marijuana as dry mature female cannabis buds or conversion (to edibles, tinctures, etc.) Creates two legal categories: “qualified patients” protected by Prop 215 and “persons with an identification card” with distinct rights and responsibilities. Sets criminal penalties for abuse of the card system Allows cardholder-caregivers to have more than one patient in their home county, but only one patient from out of county Sets a default guideline of six mature plants and eight ounces of bud or conversion as a safe harbor from arrest for patients and caregivers with valid cards. Counties and cities and empowered to adopted new guidelines, as long as the amounts are no lower than the state floor. A physician may authorize unspecified amounts greater than the state and local guidelines.
Conrad says he wrote the booklet with “people involved in setting policy” in mind. He asks rhetorically, “Why should any locality enact guidelines greater than the SB-420 floor? Because to do so is cost-effective, reasonable and compassionate, The six-plant, eight-ounce limit is neither scientific nor adequate for many patients. A compassionate policy would be to stop arresting patients, leave them their medicine, and not ruin them financially by causing prohibitive legal costs. The counties would benefit enormously -prosecuting a marijuana case can cost $100,000.” The booklet should prove useful to growers seeking to confirm that their gardens are within the legal limits. Conrad advises growers not to have guns on the premises. “They might think that it puts them at risk in terms of a strong-armed robbery, but to tell you the truth, I don’t hear about people saying that having a gun helped out. I DO know of a number of cases of people getting extra time or injuring themselves. Guns bring in the feds –a large-scale grow or the presence of a gun. I don’t think the benefit is worth it.” Conrad is not anti-gun in general. “When I was growing up in Maryland we had guns to shoot at ground hogs, which destroyed crops,” he says with a no-BFD shrug.
An organization founded by Conrad and Ralph Sherrow, Safe Access Now, maintains a website (safeaccesnow.net) that lists the allowable-quantity guidelines in effect county-by-county. Mendocino allows a 100-foot canopy for cultivation but possession of only two pounds. Del Norte allows 100 square feet but only one pound. Tehama allows three pounds but only 10 plants. In most counties, however, the six-plant, eight-ounce “default” limit applies. The Cannabis Yields and Dosage booklet costs $5 (shipping included) if you send a check to Chris Conrad at pob 1716 El Cerrito CA 94530, or $7 if you order through safeaccesnow.net. It’s printed on 8-1/2 by -11″ high-gloss paper that looks like it could stand up to the humidity of a greenhouse. When we’d talked in December, Conrad was waiting for a verdict from Humboldt. “This woman would have had a great case if she hadn’t told the cop in an initial interview that she only uses a gram a day -which is 12 ounces a year, and she’s growing six pounds. I made a real good argument that it was a personal garden, based on how it was laid out, but I don’t know what the jury is going to make of it.”
Now the verdict was in. ” It was a split verdict,” Conrad explained, “convicted of cultivation but acquitted of intent to sell, which I interpreted as the jury telling her that she was, indeed, growing too much but also telling the DA that simply having a large supply does not prove intent to distribute marijuana. This distinction is also borne out by the Arbacauskas Appellate decision, that although the defendant was growing more than his “current medical need” would warrant, this was due to inexperience rather than criminal intent. In that case, all charges were dismissed, the Appeals court reviewed the facts, wrote favorably of my testimony, and ruled that it was improper for the DA to re-file the same charges without any new evidence. That decision affects all criminal proceedings in the state.”
Dr. Fry Gets a Slap on the Wrist
Marian “Mollie” Fry, MD, is back in the USA and has started seeing patients again after accepting a settlement offer by the Medical Board of California. Fry was accused of making “extreme departures from the standard of care” in 21 cases. In early October, in the midst of a hearing in Oakland before Administrative Law Judge Ruth Astle, Fry left for Holland with her husband, attorney Dale Shafer, and their three teenagers, plus one of Shafer’s grown children from a previous marriage. While they were gone, Lawrence Lichter continued representing Fry. All but two of the cases were thrown out by Astle on the grounds that the Board had violated the patients’ privacy rights in obtaining their files. “The judge relied on the Bearman precedent,” says Shafer, thankfully. The two patients whose treatment was deemed admissible by Astle had revealed details about their dealings with Fry to Del Norte authorities (in an attempt to get their cannabis back following a raid). They’d said she didn’t conduct a physical exam but did review records of their diagnoses by other doctors. The Board’s expert witness, Dr. Barbara Neyhart, testified that the files revealed Fry’s “extreme departures.” Lichter cross-examined Neyhart for three days and says she revealed “hostility towards marijuana and general lack of knowledge on the subject.” Lichter thinks that news about the deadly damage caused by Cox inhibitors subtly influenced the mood in Judge Astle’s hearing room. He asked Neyhart a series of questions “about the estrogen replacement therapy and Vioxx that she had been touting for many years.” Neyhart testified, says Lichter, that one of Fry’s patients was taking 12 Vicodin a day. “The judge said, ‘that’s not what [the file] says, look at it closely, that’s what the patient answered to “Which drugs have you stopped doing since using marijuana?”‘” Before Astle issued her ruling, one of the prosecutors called to propose that Fry accept a public reprimand, pay $1,500 towards the cost of the Board’s investigation of her, and take a record-keeping course at UC San Diego med school. “We accepted gladly,” says Shafer. “In San Diego we’re going to use the opportunity to make sure that the Cannabis Research Medical Group questionnaire comports with all their requirements.”
Elsewhere in the News
Last week we remarked the meaningless (or worse) puns in a Washington Post story by Peter Carlson about Keith Stroup’s departure from the helm of NORML. The L.A. Times ran Carlson’s piece Sunday 1/9 under the headline “Turning a New Leaf,” which implies that NORML will be taking a different approach under Stroup’s successor (a subject the story did not address at all). Some of these headline writers are so addicted to puns that they’ll abandon meaning, clarity, relevance, professional responsibility… just so they can get their damned fix.
Here’s another one from the SF Chronicle Jan. 14, the headline on Chip Johnson’s column: “Pot-using politician did dopey thing.” Actually, Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, did a very intelligent and unusual thing by telling the truth. He was departing for a two-day trip to L.A. when airport police ticketed him because a search of his luggage -not his carry-on bag- had turned up less than an ounce. Siegel said he uses marijuana for stress and doesn’t have a doctor’s letter to do so. He accepted the citation and caught his plane.
The episode was the occasion for 25-inches of tsk-tsking by Johnson. “The epitome of poor judgment just plain stupid a sophomoric prank” Johnson phoned Siegel for a comment and Siegel repeated his calm, grown-up line: “I’m not hiding the fact that I use marijuana occasionally, and I don’t think it should be illegal As long as my ability isn’t impaired by the use of alcohol or marijuana, I think it’s my business.”
Johnson opines that Siegel isn’t entitled to privacy because he’s a “public person,” a member of the Oakland school board and a likely candidate for mayor. “His opponents will surely have a field day with this misstep,” writes Johnson. The bright side is that even if Siegel runs for Mayor and loses, he can go home, roll a joint, and just saw screw it, dude.” Johnson expresses concern that “Students who have been taught to ‘just say no’ in drug awareness classes may be wondering who or what to believe.” It’s not a bad thing, Chip, if the kids rethink that phony drugwar propaganda. Why conceal from them the fact the tens of millions of perfectly American citizens like Dan Siegel use marijuana and cause no harm to themselves or others? It was admirable that Siegel didn’t try to bluff or bullshit. The real outrage was the cops going through his luggage.
The Chronicle Sunday magazine ran a Q&A 1/9 with Javier Pena, the new Special Agent in Charge of the DEA office. Reporter Sam Whiting asked the questions. Here are three exchanges of special interest…
Whiting: so what is it all about? Pena: We go after drug-trafficking organizations. There’s a myth that we’re after the users, the peddlers on the streets. We go after major organizations.
Whiting: What are the DEA priorities in San Francisco? Pena: The main one is medicinal marijuana. It’s legal here to buy marijuana, which contradicts federal law.
Whiting: What about pot clubs? Pena: What we’re seeing is these dispensaries are not in it for the health benefits. They’re in it to make money.
We had a few follow-up Qs for Whiting but he wouldn’t A.
Mad Cackle Syndrome
One of the most influential psychiatrists of our time, Robert Spitzer, MD, was profiled in the New Yorker Jan. 3 by Alix Spiegel. Spitzer was the driving force behind the 1980 and 1987 editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM provides a definition and a number for every ailment of the mind and spirit for which psychotherapists provide treatment, MDs prescribe medication, and insurance companies reimburse. By increasing the number of disorders and the broadness of the definitions, the DSM-III authors (establishment psychiatrists chosen by Spitzer) defined millions more Americans as sick, thus qualifying them for prescription drugs. This was the hidden, ultimate goal of the corporations that underwrote the “research” cited by the DSM authors.
Spiegel doesn’t convey the pompous fake rigor that permeates the DSM (she calls it “a scientific instrument”) but she does give a few tidbits about Spitzer’s own whacko personality. “His mother was a ‘professional patient’ who cried continuously, and his father was cold and remote,” Spiegel writes, having gotten it, obviously, from Spitzer (a severe case of Unresolved Parental Resentment Disorder). As a young man Spitzer paid for Reichian therapy in an “orgone accumulator.”
A former colleague says of Spitzer, “He would never say hello. You could stand right next to him and be talking to him and he wouldn’t even hear you. He didn’t seem to recognize that anyone was there.”
Another says, “He doesn’t understand people’s emotions. He knows he doesn’t. But that’s actually helpful in labeling symptoms. It provides less noise.”
According to Spiegel, “Spitzer is in his seventies but seems much younger; his graying hair is dyed a deep shade of brown.” (Symptom number one in Excessive Vanity Disorder.) “He admits that the patients he saw as a practicing psychoanalyst rarely seemed to improve… ‘I was always uncomfortable listening and empathizing, I just didn’t know what the hell to do.'” So this fiercely ambitious loser did “research.”
Robert Spitzer was the anti-hero of a great expose published in 1992 called The Selling of DSM by Stuart Kirk and Herb Kutchins. Spiegel of the NYer is not out to muckrake, but her description of the process by which DSM-III was compiled is devastating: “Because there are very few records of the process, it’s hard to pin down exactly how Spitzer and his staff determined which mental disorders to include in the new manual and which to reject. Spitzer seems to have made many of the final decisions with minimal consultation.”
The original DSM, published in 1952, defined 106 disorders. Spitzer’s DSM-IIIR listed 292, including attention-deficit disorder, autism, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, panic disorder and post-traumatic distress disorder, and others that are now household words and for which the pharmaceutical industry provides “medication.” Spitzer’s editions of the DSM simplified and made more inclusive the definition -or should we say the net- for many more conditions, including clinical depression, just as Eli Lilly was preparing Prozac for the market.
One day Spiegel of the NYer summoned the courage to ask Spitzer to explain the criteria for listing a new disorder in the DSM. “‘How logical it was,’ he said vaguely. ‘Whether it fit in… For most of the categories it was just the best thinking of people who seemed to have expertise in the area.'” If you define “expertise” as “the biggest drug-company grants” -which Spitzer literally did when he selected psychiatrists to write the DSM-III definitions – the intellectual corruption of the whole enterprise becomes clear.
“By far the most radical innovation” in Spitzer’s DSM, according to Spiegel, was the handy checklist of symptoms for each disorder enabling the harried practitioner to make a quick, easy diagnosis. She doesn’t point out that this, like all his other innovations, served to facilitate sales of corporate drugs.
The profile ends with Spiegel asking if Spitzer “ever feels a sense of ownership” when he comes across a reference in a newspaper to one of the disorders he defined. “He admitted that he does on occasion feel a small surge of pride. ‘My fingers were on the typewriter that typed those. They might have been changed somewhat, but they all went through my fingers,’ he said. ‘Every word.'” (Mad Cackle Syndrome.)
FRED GARDNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org