"War on Pot" Overrides "Support Our Troops"

In transcribing Phil Northcutt’s recollections of combat, I misspelled the name of his commanding officer, killed by a suicide bomber in Ramadi.  Northcutt emailed: “Captain Patrick Rapicault, 34, was killed when a VBIED –vehicle-borne improvised explosive device– rammed vehicle ‘Whiskey Six.’  Marc Ryan, 25, and Lance Thompson, 21, were also killed. Ben Nelson was seriously wounded but survived.”

Every day is Memorial Day for Northcutt. He came back to Camp Pendleton April 1, 2005. He was promoted to sergeant and put on “medical hold” while the Marine Corps evaluated whether his back injury qualified him for medical retirement.

Northcutt:  The MRI showed that my L-4 and L-5 disks were bulging. They were pinching my sciatic nerve and causing me severe pain down to the back of my knees. The Marine Corps showed no interest in my PTSD, and there was never a word about TBI [traumatic brain injury].

How long were you on medical hold?

For a year. This is when they super-medicate me. I would be given a grocery bag full of really heavy shit. Hydrocodones and anti-depressants, Neurontin, Seroquel, anti-nightmare pills, half of it you get really fucking high on. I’m not much of a pillbilly but I’ve taken them all. And that is true of just about anyone I know who went to Iraq and has come back. They’re all pill experts. How the fuck does that happen? You get back and they just like push 10 pills on you right away.

Were you dealing with Marine Corps doctors or the VA?

The Marine Corps –DOD doctors. But I was also trying to deal with the VA because they sent me home awaiting orders. I go to live at my grandma’s in Long Beach and I’m chilling in the guest house while I’m waiting to get out of the Marine Corps. The VA Hospital is like a mile from my house and Camp Pendleton is two hours away in traffic. I’m drugged out all day long and they’re like, “You’ve got appointments on this day at Camp Pendleton.” I would just lie in bed all day, loaded. Totally fucked up. But it was cool because a doctor prescribed it.

The VA tells me, “you’re active duty, we can’t treat you.” So I’d go to the appointments at Camp Pendleton –sometimes– and I’m telling these people, “you don’t understand. I have waking nightmares. I sleep with a gun under my pillow.”

When I first got home I’d sleep for one or two hours a night. I’d be like I’m here with you and we’d be talking and (as if dozing off). And an hour later (as if startled awake) “Where am I?  Where are my Marines? Where is my weapon?” First thing that comes to my head. And then it would be like: “This is not a dream. This is not Iraq.” It’s weird because your brain goes (sound of a car accelerating) and then it comes back. A lot of people haven’t been exposed to severe stress and don’t understand that severe stress makes your brain do weird shit. I knew something was wrong with my head but I couldn’t get help.

Did you ask to be tested for brain injury?

Northcutt: No. I was not even thinking about it. And nobody asked me how many times I’d been near things blowing up, or how close, or anything like that.  The help I needed was not pills but fucking counseling. I needed people who knew what the fuck PTSD was and could tell me: “You’re life’s going to change in this way.” Nobody there knew. We were like the first bunch of guys to really come back from heavy combat in Iraq. They may have known about Gulf War Syndrome and another set of deal-ios…

Northcutt punctuated his knocked-out-loaded days with adrenaline-junkie jags,  racking up speeding tickets. He relied on high-doses of Hydrocodone to suppress his back pain.

Northcutt: They just left me to my own devices with PTSD and a steady paycheck. So I bought a fast motorcycle and went to Utah. Went to Vegas. My back was so fucked up I could hardly walk, but I could drive real fast. I liked staying in hotels because I was drinking heavily and in a hotel I could go first thing in the morning to the hotel bar and start drinking.

I kind of avoided everybody I knew. I didn’t want anybody to ask me “How are you?”  Because what do you tell them? “I’m all fucked up?”  You don’t even know how to answer. And every time you start telling them it takes you back. And you’re trying to escape in your mind from Iraq.

What about your grandma?

I would be there like two days a week. I would barely talk to her. I would give her a hug and go out to the guest house and by that night I was gone. Or I would stop in to do laundry and visit with her for a minute.

What did you drink?

Tequila, Newcastle, Guinness. I like really good tequila.

Do you still drink?

No. Almost never.

Did you quit through a program?

No. I don’t need alcohol. As I’m getting older I really do feel it the next day. And my days are hard enough. And that’s one of the reasons I love medical marijuana.

How did you find medical marijuana?

I knew about marijuana because I was a recreational smoker. And I started medicating with marijuana before I became a patient.

I started realizing, “Of all the crap they’re giving me, I feel the best when I’m smoking herb. Hmmm… That’s weird. When I just smoke herb I feel kind of relaxed, I don’t feel so stressed out, I don’t feel the depression, I don’t feel the guilt…” Eventually I realized: “this is real medicine.”

Did it help you sleep?

For sure. It helped me relax so I could sleep. That’s a big difference. The pills just knock you the fuck out. You’re just gone. Even if you don’t want to go to sleep you’re still sleeping. Which can be pretty dangerous. Once I decided to become a medical marijuana patient, that’s when everything changed.

When was that?

I want to say October 2005. When I went to see Dr. [William] Eidelman.

How did you decide on Dr. Eidelman?

I Googled “medical marijuana” and started reading different websites. I read stuff on his website about healing and medicine and I thought he had a legitimate angle.  People should take him more seriously. A lot of what he says is just common sense, like giving healing a chance to happen.

So I went to him and said I was interested in medical marijuana and he said, “I’m going to give you a recommendation, but I want you to quit smoking cigarettes and I want you to quit drinking.” He also warned about the side effects of all the prescription pills I was on.

At the time he got his letter of approval, Northcutt was becoming enraptured with marijuana –its beauty, its fragrance, its usefulness.  “I became a connoisseur,” he says.  His transition from consumer to provider came in response to requests from friends –a very common pattern.

Northcutt:  I discovered that organic herb made me feel the best. So next thing you know, I’m on this mission to get the best organic herb. I started going up to Mendo and Humboldt and meeting with farmers. (As if smelling a bag full of cannabis flowers) “Ah this is good.” And it would be that kushy wet hay… There’s no smell like it. But I would have to pay up the yin-yang.

Other patients knew that I was getting good organic herb and they were like, “Can you get me some?” So I started coming back with a couple of pounds. That’s how I could afford to have good herb for myself.

So the next logical step is, “Why am I traveling all the time and spending all this money when I can just be growing it myself and all these people can learn to grow it, too?” So we got together and decided to grow for ourselves.

How many people were involved?

Four or five of us did the growing. There were more than a dozen patients, including my girl friend. We called ourselves a co-op.  I had the space. I had a warehouse from when I was in the screenprinting business. I had one screen-printing machine there, a gift from my dad, who was moving to Tennessee. He’d gotten into the screen-printing business after I did. He said, “If you can make money at it, I can for sure.” When he gave me the machine –which is really like giving somebody millions of dollars, because you can make a living with it, he said, “Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.”

O’S: Were you planning to go back into screenprinting?

I was. But as I became more health-conscious, I realized the health hazards involved. The chemicals are terrible for the environment…  I’d been using the warehouse for storage and to park my vehicles. For growing cannabis I turned it  into like an operating room. I made special doors so that no dust or dirt could get in under the cracks. Air coming into the entire building was hepa-filtered. The air going out was charcoal filtered. Every room was plastic-wrapped and could be individually sterilized. I had four  10-by-10 tables, a separate nursery for my clones, a separate mama room, a drying room,  a sleeping area because I’m there all the time. I slept under the lights. When the lights came on, I would get up.

One of the really wild things that happened was: I became a gardener for the first time in my life. I was developing a love of plants and an appreciation of nature. And I was developing a relationship with God. Instead of killing and maiming I was making things grow.

“He’s military and he’s got a gun!”

Northcutt was busted by Long Beach police on the evening of March 28, 2006, while driving away from his warehouse. He had two mason jars, each with about 1/2 ounce of marijuana (New York City Diesel and Skunk Numer 1). He tried to smoothtalk his way out of trouble, mentioning that he had a doctor’s approval to use marijuana and was an active duty sergeant in the marine corps. He suspected a set-up when the officers said his less-than-an-ounce seemed like “a lot of marijuana” and that it was “packaged for sale.” When Northcutt informed them that he had a weapon, the officers vanished before he could hand it over.

In the rearview mirror Northcutt could see them crouched behind their vehicle, calling for back-up. “He’s military and he’s got a gun!” one yelled into her radio. She would repeat the urgent warning as re-enforcements arrived.

Sgt. Northcutt was taken to L.A. County Jail for booking. A warrant was issued to search his grandma’s house. The search yielded 20 grams of marijuana, a scale, five tablets of MDMA (ecstasy), and an unloaded shotgun.

Northcutt: My neighbors came to me later and said, “The way they cordoned off the whole fucking neighborhood, we thought you shot a cop. Of course there was nothing to find. My cousin hears one of the cops say, “Hey, look for some warehouse keys.”

Next thing you know, they’re issuing a warrant for my business, based on my electric bill of $600. Which is not high in an industrial zone. The diesel shop next door uses three times as much. It was unreal on a professional level. It blew me away. But it didn’t really surprise me. I’ve seen that happen to other people. Now it was happening to me.

The media had been notified in advance of the raid on Northcutt’s warehouse, and it made the news that night. Long Beach police seized 339 plants that he and his friends were growing by the “sea-of-green” method (densely packed small plants). They also found 18 mason jars containing 1.2 pounds of dried flowers, bags full of leaf and stalk, and a loaded shotgun.

Northcutt:  They took me downtown to LA County Jail for booking –suspicion of selling marijuana because I had a cell phone and two jars of marijuana. And the whole time they’re talking shit to me: “Who do you think you are? You think you’re bad. You think you’re Rambo.”

Tim King says that law enforcement in Orange County has always had it in for the enlisted man.

Northcutt: I have some buddies who are good cops because they’re good human beings. But these cops who are badge-heavy, who think they’re bad-ass, they’re the ones who fuck things up. They told the judge that I had an unregistered weapon, but one of them ran it and saw that it was registered to me.  They wouldn’t call Dr. Eidelman.

Did you ask them to?

Northcutt: Of course. And when they didn’t, I asked them to call someone from Narcotics who might know the proper procedure.

Northcutt was charged on four counts: marijuana cultivation, marijuana possession for sale, MDMA possession, and possession of MDMA and a firearm. He spent 18 days in jail before getting bailed out. by an uncle, Bob Northcutt, who loyally showed up in court throughout Phil’s ordeal.

How did the Marine Corps respond to your getting busted?

Northcutt: They came to me in LA County because on TV they’d said I was a reservist. They wanted to get me out before it became known that I was on active duty medical hold and had PTSD.  A staff sergeant came in and said, “Sgt. Northcutt, if you sign right here we won’t prosecute you, you’ll be out of the Marine Corps in 20 days.”

With what kind of discharge?

Northcutt: General under other than honorable conditions.

Northcutt’s discharge cost him all his military benefits. He had enough money to pay defense attorney Bruce Margolin $20,000.  Unfortunately, the Margolin associate handling his case failed to appear at a hearing and Northcutt was sent directly into custody by Judge James Pierce. Northcutt heard that his lawyer eventually showed up and got scolded by the judge. He  figured he would be released –but he was still in jail six months later when his trial finally got underway.

Northcutt describes LA County jail as “a gulag that should be investigated by the United Nations,” He was  represented by a veteran public defender Ken MacDonald, whom he describes as competent in court but not knowledgable regarding medical marijuana law, and reluctant to do research because he didn’t think Northcutt had a chance.

The trial was held June 12-18 –just when Northcutt’s girlfriend, Jen, a key defense witness, was due to give birth. Northcutt wondered if the date had been chosen to guarantee her absence. (Jen delivered a healthy baby boy, Kai, June 16.)

Northcutt says he was sleep-deprived during the trial, transported by bus to different facilities, stashed for a few hours in overcrowded cells, then driven back to LA County to hit the rack for a few hours.

It was stipulated at trial that the amount of plant matter taken from the warehouse was just under 17 pounds. A Long Beach detective testified that each of the 339 plants at the warhouse would yield three to five ounces. Cultivation expert Chris Conrad testified for the defense that the “sea of green” plus the immature plants in Northcutt’s warehouse would yield about 4.25 pounds total.

Northcutt and Jennifer had letters of approval from Dr. Eidelman. Four other participants were willing to produce doctors’ letters and testify about their involvement in the grow, but Northcutt’s lawyer advised that only two were needed. The others wanted to have their names kept out of the proceedings, and Northcutt says, “I understood and protected them.”

The jury was not instructed by Judge James Pierce that cooperative cultivation is legal in California. They were instructed that California’s medical marijuana laws include limits on allowable quantity (as per SB-420, a bill enacted by the legislature ostensibly to help implement Prop 215).

Northcutt was found guilty of cultivation but acquitted on possession for sale. Apparently the jurors thought the marijuana being grown fat Northcutt’s warehouse was for medical use, but the paperwork was insufficient to justify the amount on hand. The MDMA charges had been dropped because there was no evidence that the five pills belonged to Northcutt. (They’d been found in an area of his grandma’s house to which many people had access.)

After his trial Northcutt was transferred to state prison in Chino for 90 days. He was sentenced on Nov. 8 to three years’ felony probation with one year in jail (time served), and $470 in fines. He requested a court-appointed lawyer to appeal his conviction. At the time of his release, Phil Northcutt had lost his Marine Corps benefits, his chosen livelihood, and almost a year of his life.

NORTHCUTT: I lost my business, I lost my car, I lost my respect in the community, I lost all my money trying to defend myself. I literally had nothing to my name. Jennifer had moved back to Oklahoma to stay with her mom while I was in jail. When I got out, she came back, but we didn’t have a place to live. Not the best strategic decision but we’d been apart so long, we just wanted our family to be together.  So there we were together but homeless.

Luckily, friends came to my rescue. A buddy whose girlfriend owned a hotel let us stay there sometimes. Other people let us stay on their couch. It wasn’t till I got to the Pathway Home in Yountville that I started connecting with resources.  That was really critical, that turned my life around.

The Pathway Home is run by a man named Fred Gusman. It was there  I saw other people going through what I was going through.  I realized I wasn’t the only one with legal issues. There are other people who are going through this and it’s really having an effect on their lives.

I spent a lot of time on the internet figuring out who’s available to help veterans. I feel for guys who don’t even know these organizations exist. It’s ironic –you’ve got organizations with outreach programs that don’t know where to find the guys who need help. And you’ve got guys who need help who don’t know how to reach the organizations.

How is your PTSD? Is it under control? Do you have nightmares?

Without cannabis, I have trouble sleeping. It’s not just remembering the things you’ve seen. There’s survivor’s guilt, there’s guilt from hurting other people, there’s anger from having been lied to. And I blame myself for having put myself into that position. I was not drafted. Granted some of the information was faulty, but I trusted the people in charge.

When I took down his story on May 14, Northcutt was heading from Calistoga, where he lives, to L.A. to deal with $2, 700 worth of traffic tickets through “Veterans Homeless Court..” He was also planning to attend the hearing of People v. Northcutt by a three-judge panel from the Second Division Appellate Court on May 19. Northcutt said hopefully that his state-provided appeals lawyer, Benjamin Owens of El Cerrito, had spent more time discussing his case with him than any of the lawyers who had worked on the defense.

We felt bad for Northcutt driving off into the night.. Rosie told him she’d heard on TV that the hills above Santa Barbara were burning out of control. He said something about going through danger and finding success on the other side. I worried that he would not be able to get out of paying for the tickets, they’d take his driver’s license, then he’d really be up the creek without a paddle.

A few days later he called to say that his conviction had been overturned.

NORTHCUTT; My attorney had spent a lot of time preparing what he was going to say. I was looking forward to hearing him argue and the judges asking questions. I was in the back. I heard a judge say, “You’re not going to speak.”  My lawyer sat down and I’m like, “What’s going on?”

Then the judge said, “The attorney general can say something if he’d like…”  And the attorney general talked about cooperatives’ membership requirements, and limits, and gray areas of the law.  Then my attorney said, “I’m available if you have any questions.” But the judges said, “You’re probably better off if we don’t ask any questions.”

I’m sitting there going, “What is that supposed to mean?”  Then my lawyer comes back and says, “Okay, let’s go.” And I’m like, “What just happened?”  He said, “The judges had already decided the case. I didn’t have to say anything because we’d already won before we got there. They said you’re getting a full reversal.”

In CounterPunch tomorrow:  the possible significance of the appellate court ruling in People v. Northcutt.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. Email fred@plebesite.com

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