Ed Rosenthal, nicknamed the "Guru of Ganja," dodged a huge bullet when he was allowed to go home by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who had ruled during the trial that Rosenthal would not be allowed to testify that he had been growing marijuana for distribution to the sick under the protection of California's medical marijuana law and with the full knowledge of Oakland city officials.
Activists were delighted with Wednesday's turn of events, not only because Rosenthal faced a maximum of 40 years in prison, but also because a federal judge had rebuffed a move by the federal government to trump a voter-approved state law allowing the use of pot for medicinal purposes.
"The Bush administration's prosecution of Ed Rosenthal was a political act masquerading as federal law enforcement," opined Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Judge Breyer's decision today sends a powerful message that the criminal justice system cannot be used to pursue crass and inhumane ideological ends."
Rosenthal, 58, had argued that he had been acting as an agent for the city of Oakland and was under the protection of state law when he was busted for tending to around 100 pot plants. Judge Breyer would not allow that issue -- what most would have seen as relevant information -- to be presented in the trial, after which time shocked jurors said they would have acquitted Rosenthal had they known.
Those sentiments are what marijuana backers are hoping will be brought out when jurors sit in judgment in future cases through the Truth in Trials Act, a house measure that would legalize medical marijuana as a legal defense.
Under the act, introduced by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Rep. Dana Rohrabacjer, R-Calif., juries are allowed to convict a marijuana defendant on lesser charges "if the defendant's marijuana-related activity was found to be primarily, but not exclusively, for medical purposes."
Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access said the act was needed to halt what is seen as persecution of the people who take the risks to supply marijuana to the sick, many suffering from terminal diseases.
"Well-informed juries are the only thing standing between a compassionate medical marijuana provider and federal prison," said Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access.
Marijuana advocates see Rosenthal's case as an example of White House extremism against struggling victims of cancer, AIDS and other dread diseases. They accuse Attorney General John Ashcroft of launching a self-righteous jihad against both patients and the people trying to comfort them by providing the occasional plastic sandwich bag of weed.
"We hope the zealots in Washington have heard the chorus of support for Ed," Nadelmann crowed.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has a long list of beefs with the whole medical marijuana concept that boils down to the platform that marijuana is a harmful and addictive gateway drug that has dubious medical benefits. State laws to condone its medical use, the agency says, undermine federal safety requirements and are most likely a cover for a campaign to legalize marijuana across the board.
"The pro-legalization organizations behind these ballot initiatives deny that there is a drug problem among our youth," the DEA said in a fact sheet on medical marijuana. "As much as they seek to focus on people suffering with illnesses, we must keep the debate properly centered on the safety of our kids. In a time where drug use among kids has increased 78 percent in the last four years, this country cannot afford to undermine drug prevention efforts with these pro-marijuana ballot initiatives."
The pros-and-cons of marijuana use aren't really the point, however. The arrest of Rosenthal and high-profile raids on so-called "buyer clubs" in California were carried out by the DEA on the premise that federal law trumps state law -- and federal law holds that marijuana possession and distribution is a felony.
There is little chance of a federal medical marijuana law coming out of Washington any time soon, but the pro-pot movement is betting that the crackdown on medical marijuana will quickly run out of gas if federal court juries begin buying the service-to-humanity angle presented by defense attorneys to explain all those plants in their clients' gardens and basements.
"As important as Judge Breyer's action is, patients and caregivers shouldn't have to depend on the goodwill of one judge," Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, noted in a release. "Congress must act immediately to pass the Truth in Trials Act, which will allow federal medical marijuana defendants to tell the whole truth in court -- a basic right that Ed Rosenthal was denied."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)