By: Eugene Davidovich, Americans for Safe Access
On January 13th, the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) â€“ the nationâ€™s largest organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists, and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research â€“ in collaboration with the San Diego County Public Defenderâ€™s Office (PD) conducted certified, continuing legal education (MCLE) training on how to defend medical marijuana cases for over 100 attorneys in San Diego. ASAâ€™s idea to train attorneys arose in 2004, after Senate Bill 420 (SB 420) went into effect in the state. SB 420 gave patients and dispensaries additional rights, directed counties to afford better protection, and at the same time, raised many new legal questions and issues.
In response to the new law, ASA launched a program aimed at arming attorneys across the state with the most current knowledge needed to successfully defend medical marijuana patients in court. â€œNo California medical marijuana patient or caregiver should ever have to go to jail or accept a plea bargain again,â€ said Steph Sherer, ASA executive director. â€œOnce defense attorneys understand the changes in the law and the defenses available to them, theyâ€™ll be able to fight every prosecution to acquittal.â€ The program launched with over two dozen legal trainings held across the state, including San Diego. Public defenders, court appointed attorneys, and private defense attorneys received training from ASAâ€™s Chief Counsel Joe Elford, a Stanford and Yale-trained constitutional law and criminal defense expert. Since SB 420 and the legal trainings conducted by ASA in 2004, parts of the law have been taken apart by the courts and portions specifically relating to limits on how much medicine a patient can poses were ruled unconstitutional.
Over the last six years, we have also seen the California Attorney General develop guidelines for patients and dispensaries in 2008, court precedent set through dozens of new cases, and clarification received from the appellate courts affirming that federal law does not preempt state law on this issue. Today in 2011, 14 years since this medicine became legal in the state and over six years since SB 420, San Diego continues to be the frontline for the war on medical marijuana. Patients here are still arrested for simple possession and are regularly denied a defense in court. Providers are targeted through swat-style raids and undercover investigations, and those charged in many cases, lack the legal knowledge and qualified representation to defend themselves against a District Attorneyâ€™s Office and courthouse riddled with hate for medical marijuana and the unquenchable thirst for assets they seize through their asset forfeiture programs. Aside from all the new changes in the law and the continued war on patients here in San Diego, just about every time advocates of the local ASA chapter are in the courthouse for court support wearing their ASA shirts, they are approached by public defenders and other attorneys with questions and requests for assistance with ongoing medical marijuana cases. All these reasons prompted the local ASA chapter to revive the legal training part of the California program on defending patients here in San Diego.
First, the chapterâ€™s coordinating committee designated several members to help organize the training; Marcus Boyd, Eugene Davidovich, Terrie Best, and Bahar Ansari, Esq. were picked to lead that effort. The committee met, discussed the next steps, and agreed that the training must provide the attorneys in attendance with credit towards their requirement for continued legal education. The committee figured that this would give more attorneys an incentive to attend and would allow the training to reach a wider audience of litigators in San Diego. The only way attorneys can receive MCLE credit in California is to attend a course that is taught through a certified training provider. The group was presented with two options: receive certification as an MCLE training provider or team up with an already certified provider and conduct the training in collaboration with them. Bahar Ansari began researching what it would take to become a certified provider and Marcus Boyd launched into contacting the PDâ€™s Office. At the time, Marcus found that the training coordinator for the San Diego PDâ€™s Office was Juliana Humphrey, a deputy public defender who had previously handled a number of medical marijuana cases, and at one point, was even the chair of the first San Diego Cityâ€™s Medical Marijuana Task Force, a group of citizens charged with helping the City Council develop local regulations for patients. During her time on the task force, the group helped craft the current city regulation that allows patients to poses up to a pound of medicine and cultivate as many as 24 plants in their homes or within a locked greenhouse.
In April of 2010, when Marcus first reached out to Ms. Humphrey, he wrote â€œSan Diego Americans for Safe Access would like to offer our assistance in any way we can in making your jobs easier when it comes to defending and taking medical marijuana cases to trial.Â We are committed to offering training to the Public Defenderâ€™s Office as well as court support to every defendant.â€ To everyoneâ€™s pleasant surprise in her communication back to Marcus, Ms. Humphrey wrote, â€œI am certain our attorneys would be interested in training offered by ASA, particularly if the attorneys who tried these recent cases were involved. Â Knowledge, as always, is power.Â I would certainly attend.â€ While Marcus was communicating with Ms. Humphrey about getting the training going, Bahar was actively researching what it would take for the local chapter to become a certified MCLE provider. After reaching out to the state bar and other certified providers, she found it was much easier, cheaper, and more effective if the training were conducted through the PDâ€™s Office, who was already certified, rather than having the chapter take on the certification themselves.
The good news came in June of 2010. In an email to the San Diego ASA Board on June 11th, Bahar wrote, â€œI just spoke to Juliana Humphrey and confirmed that we do not need to get approval from the state bar since the training will be offered through the PDâ€™s Office.â€ Along with that good news, the group saw a serious setback. Ms. Humphrey would no longer be the training coordinator for the Public Defenderâ€™s Office, and she did not know how receptive the new coordinator would be to the program. Even if the new regime was receptive, the entire office was in the process of moving and would likely not be able to schedule training for months. However, the group did not lose hope or give up. For the next six months, at every board meeting, they discussed the progress and Bahar continued to follow up with Gary Gibson, the new training coordinator.
In December of 2010, after months of persistence, Bahar finally received word that the training had been approved and the date was ready to be set. The San Diego County PDâ€™s Office scheduled an official MCLE course and invited all the attorneys on their mailing list to attend. The training was to be held in their new state-of-the-art training facility located in downtown San Diego, and would be broadcasted to the El Cajon, Chula Vista, and North County satellite offices. San Diego ASAâ€™s focus now shifted from scheduling to putting the actual training materials together for the course, and confirming the instructorsâ€™ availability.Â To ensure the training would be taught by the most qualified attorneys, the group reached out to Lance Rogers, a criminal defense attorney that litigated two of the three most recent medical marijuana trials here in San Diego, and asked him to help teach the class. Lance agreed, and it was decided; Bahar Ansari and Lance Rogers, two expert defense attorneys involved in the three most recent medical marijuana trials here in San Diego, would teach the class.
A power point presentation was created, and it contained information from the three most recent cases, the latest landmark rulings, and a thorough overview of statutes related to medical marijuana. All materials for the course were put together with the two attorneysâ€™ input and the assistance of other members of the chapter as well as ASA National. On January 13, 2011, about 60 public defenders, court-appointed attorneys, and private lawyers were on hand at the main downtown training facility of the San Diego County Public Defenderâ€™s Office, with over 60 others joining from satellite offices around the county through the internet broadcast.
During the 50 minute class, Bahar Ansari and Lance Rogers delivered a thorough review of the law relating to medical marijuana, went over all the recent changes including the latest appellate decisions and landmark cases, and helped clarify many issues and questions the attorneys in attendance faced every day in court. When the training was over, Gary Gibson, the new training coordinator and local law professor, said, â€œThis was our most well-attended training, go figure.â€
This training combined with the continued dedication of local advocates from San Diego ASA helped arm over 100 attorneys in San Diego who typically represent the most vulnerable in our community, those who cannot afford private counsel with the knowledge and resources to successfully defend legitimate patients at trial.
San Diego ASA hopes that programs like this will help reduce the amount of cases where patients accept plea deals when they are in fact compliant with State law. Advocates in need of help or assistance in setting up a class in their area should contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The next MCLE class in San Diego on defending medical marijuana cases is expected to be held later on in the year. Over the next few months, the PDâ€™s Office will gather information related to specific issues that their attorneys face and the next course will be tailored to specifically meet those needs.
In hopes of providing this valuable material and information to as many attorneys across the state as possible, the local chapter recorded the entire training and has made the video as well as all the materials, including the power point presentation presented during the class, available on the San Diego Americans for Safe Access website at: www.safeaccesssd.org/p/public-defenders-training.html