Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Drug Warriors

Meet Paul Chabot and Lanny Swerdlow, enemy combatants in the battle
over medical marijuana-and the war just got personal
By: David Silva
In war, the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys often
depends on which side of the battle lines you happen to be standing.

But with the war on drugs, fought everywhere-on the borders and in
the streets, in the courts and playgrounds, in schools and
legislatures and often even in the home-figuring out where the battle
lines lay is difficult at best. And nowhere are the battle lines
blurrier as in the fight over the medical use of marijuana.

Inland Empire residents Paul Chabot and Lanny Swerdlow are foot
soldiers in that battle: Their individual missions perfectly
encapsulate the scope of the medical-marijuana dispute.

Swerdlow, founder of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project and
operator of the THCF Medical Clinic in Riverside, has dedicated his
life toward lifting the legal and cultural barriers against the use
of pot for medicinal purposes. He firmly believes marijuana to be a
remarkably beneficial herb, cheap and easy to cultivate and benign on
the system, criminalized for no other reason than to line the pockets
of law-enforcement types like Chabot.

Chabot, co-founder of the Inland Valley Drug Free Community Coalition
in Riverside, has similarly dedicated himself to fighting people like
Swerdlow. Chabot believes that Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot
measure that legalized medical marijuana in California, is a bad law
and bad public policy, that pot is a gateway drug responsible for the
ruination of far too many of the nation's youth, and that people like
Swerdlow are little more than glorified drug pushers.

Were they born in a different time, it's possible the two men might
actually enjoy the other's company. Both are intelligent, informed
and affable. Both are passionate about what they do, and consider
themselves dedicated servants to the public good. But in the here and
now, 13 years after the passage of Prop. 215, Chabot and Swerdlow are
sworn enemies.

Part of the reason for that is political.

"More and more people are starting to see the problems that 215 have
brought to our state," Chabot, 35, says, "Especially when very
healthy people can get marijuana for any condition whatsoever,
including hair loss, itchy skin and high-heel pain. What does that
tell young kids, growing up looking at these healthy adults smoking
marijuana? We think this experiment that's been going on has really
been exposed lately as largely a Trojan horse to legalize and tax
marijuana in our state."

But even if that were true, asks Swerdlow, so what?

"If marijuana were legalized, we'd see an increase in people using
it-people like to lift their moods a bit. They just wouldn't be doing
it with alcohol," says Swerdlow, 63. "With cannabis, people don't
have to worry about destroying their liver, as happens with alcohol
and many prescription medicines. We see a lot of people with
illnesses related to their alcohol or cigarette use. We never see
anyone with illnesses from marijuana use. No one dies from smoking
cannabis."

But with Swerdlow and Chabot, their animosities run deeper than just
policy differences: They despise one another. Chabot had Swerdlow
arrested for battery in October 2007, claiming Swerdlow shoved him
after being denied entry to a coalition meeting. Acquitted of the
charge, Swerdlow says he plans to sue Chabot-and possibly the city of
Rancho Cucamonga and the county of San Bernardino-over the episode.


**

As is the case with most bitter enemies, Swerdlow and Chabot's
animosities are informed by bitter personal experiences.

Chabot says he came from a broken home and that, as a child, he
experienced first-hand the destructive nature of marijuana.

"I went through drug rehab when I was 12 years old," he says. "I used
to be a pothead wanting to legalize pot when I was a kid. I now have
over 22 years of sobriety. I've kind of 'been there/done that' and
have been on the other side of the tracks."

Once freeing himself from drug addiction, Chabot says, everything
changed for the better. His biography on his website, paulchabot.com,
lists an impressive resume of accomplishments for someone only 35
years old.

"Dr. Paul Chabot recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq where
he served with U.S. Special Operations Forces as an Intelligence
Officer," the website states. "Previously he was a Senior Advisor
within the White House and worked for two U.S. Presidents. He began
in 1999 as a Presidential Management Fellow. He has a B.A. in
Administration from California State University at San Bernardino, a
Masters of Public Administration from the University of Southern
California and has a doctorate (Ed. D) in Executive Leadership from
the George Washington University."

Chabot, who says he plans to run for the state Assembly, founded the
Inland Valley Drug Free Coalition with his wife Brenda in 2005.
Brenda Chabot serves as the group's executive director, with Paul in
an advisory role.

Patterned after similar coalitions in cities across the country, the
group uses various strategies to influence public drug policy and
perception. Its primary tactic is the media campaign: Coalition
members write and submit op-ed articles-typically using
highly-charged rhetoric and evoking perceived threats to children- on
various drug-related concerns.

The coalition addresses all drugs-including heroin, methamphetamine,
prescription pills, alcohol and tobacco-identified by members as
threats to the community. But of particular concern to the group is
medical marijuana, given its legal status in California. In an op-ed
published Sept. 3 in the The Press-Enterprise, coalition member Roger
Anderson warns of a powerful and amoral pot industry behind Prop. 215:

"[Medical-marijuana supporters] couldn't care less that many high
school students might gather that it is OK for them to smoke
marijuana," Anderson writes. "For the drug legalization movement,
these youths are their next generation of legal drug advocates. Never
mind that these kids risk falling down the slippery slope of drug
use, abuse and addiction."

The coalition has nonprofit status under a 501(3) (c) umbrella group,
Paul Chabot's pro-clean-living Freestyle Foundation. Both
organizations solicit donations to a common mailing address, a PO box
in Rancho Cucamonga. Chabot says coalition members meet on an
irregular basis at various members' homes to discuss issues as they
come up-a common arrangement for nonprofit activist groups. He says
the coalition has more than 100 members from all walks of the IE,
including off-duty police officers, parents, teachers, doctors and
government officials.

"We do have city council members, and government officials at all
levels of government," he says. "We also have community heroes: war
vets, retired police officers, reformed drug addicts and ordinary
moms and dads who are in the trenches across the community trying to
keep their own kids off drugs."

Asked to identify some of the government officials involved, Chabot
declined, citing safety concerns. Coalition members, he says, have in
the past received death threats from anonymous callers. Two days
after being interviewed, he emailed me an audio clip of a voicemail
in which the caller raged for nearly five minutes against Chabot,
member Tom Beard and their wives.

"You people are evil!" the caller shouts. "When you use the federal
government against me as a weapon, that's no different than me using
a gun against you!"

**

Swerdlow, 63, also admits to smoking pot as a youth, but his was a
much more positive experience than Chabot's. Further, he says, he
never stopped.

"I've been smoking cannabis all my life," he says. "My friends and I
would kick back after class and roll five or six joints while
listening to [1950s television drama series] Firesign Theater. I
didn't think much about the medical effects of it until '95, when I
had a friend with AIDS."

Swerdlow describes watching his friend wither from being heavy-set
to positively skeletal. The only thing that seemed to help the friend
with loss of appetite, he said, was weed.

"I thought to myself, 'My god, this stuff really helps him,'"
Swerdlow recalls. "Remember, this was '95, when AIDS was a death
sentence. But the problem with marijuana at the time was we had to go
on the streets and deal with criminals to get it."

But he says he didn't become "radicalized" on the issue of medical
marijuana until he became a registered nurse. It wasn't just that he
noticed pot seemed to help sick people regain their appetites. He
says he also encountered, again and again, desperately ill patients
for whom a joint or a brownie provided relief where FDA-approved
drugs had failed: heart patients who found pot calmed their nerves
better than sedatives, multiple sclerosis patients whose livers were
shot by pain pills and could no longer take them, terminal cancer
patients whose nausea was eased and spirits lifted by marijuana highs.

"The California Nurses Association supports the medical use of
cannabis, as does the American Nurses Association," he says. "I've
never encountered a nurse who opposes medical marijuana. They know it
makes patients feel better, plus they know it doesn't hurt patients."

Swerdlow says he researched the history of cannabis as a medicinal
herb, and was astonished at what he found.

"Seventy years ago, your grandparents could go to a drugstore and get
it," he says. "It was prescribed all the time for women, and was
considered the best thing to ever happen when it came to women's
complaints. There are records of cannabis being used 5,000 years ago
as a medicine. After 5,000 years of use for almost everything, it's
suddenly looked upon as so dangerous that you can't even study it at
a university."

San Bernardino County-like other counties-does not officially
recognize the legitimacy of 215.

When asked his opinion on why the medical use of cannabis is so
anathema to law enforcement agencies, Swerdlow says, "Money.
Authorities arrest 870,000 people a year for cannabis-related
offenses. Police can seize your home if you're caught growing
marijuana. They can seize your car if you're caught buying it. That
money goes straight to law enforcement in seizure-asset-forfeiture
funds.

"Think about that," he adds. "If police catch a murderer, they can't
seize the home. If they catch a bank robber, they can't seize the
car. But they can seize your home or your car if you're caught with
marijuana."

In 2007, Swerdlow was asked by Paul Stanford, founder of The Hemp and
Cannabis Foundation (THCF), if he'd be interested in running a
medical-marijuana clinic Stanford was considering opening in Palm
Springs. Swerdlow suggested a clinic in Riverside instead, since Palm
Springs already had such an operation. From that conversation sprang
The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation Clinic at 647 Main St., Riverside,
one of eight THCF facilities across the western U.S. and Michigan.

Located in an office park down the street from the Riverside Golf
Course, the clinic evaluates and advises patients seeking medical
pot. It has four paid staffers, including a medical physician-Dr.
Paul Ironside. Swerdlow, who serves as medical director, says
patients provide the clinic with their medical records, are evaluated
for need, and-if they qualify-are provided the necessary
documentation to obtain a medical-marijuana ID card from a county
agency. For this service they're charged a flat fee of $125 (less,
with Medi-Cal or Medicare), refundable if they're found unqualified.

While patient records are strictly confidential, Swerdlow says the
clinic processed 500 patients in its first year of operation.

"The reason we [write recommendations] is because most doctors
won't," he says. "Physicians are threatened by the DEA that they
could have their license to write prescriptions revoked if they do.
There's a court case challenging that right now, but most doctors
won't risk it-losing their license would put them out of business.
Instead, a number of doctors refer patients to us."

The clinic is also one of four meeting places for the Marijuana
Anti-Prohibition Project, a group Swerdlow started in 1999 to educate
the public on cannabis-related issues. The Project holds monthly
seminars and discussion groups in Joshua Tree, Landers, Palm Springs
and Riverside.

**

The close proximity of two such disparate organizations-Swerdlow's
clinic in Riverside and Chabot's coalition in Rancho Cucamonga-was
bound to result in a collision. Swerdlow says he first learned of the
coalition in an August 2007 newspaper article.

"I found it incredible that this anti-drug group was so focused on
medical marijuana," he says. "Wouldn't meth be considered a bigger
problem? I learned that the group was having a meeting in
Rancho-advertised as a public meeting-so I decided to attend."

Chabot declined to discuss anything about the ensuing incident for
this article, saying it had already been hashed out in the press.
Swerdlow says he was recognized by one of Chabot's associates as soon
as he entered the James T. Brulte Senior Center in Rancho Cucamonga,
and that Chabot demanded he leave. What happened next is a matter of
great dispute, but at some point San Bernardino Sheriff's deputies
arrived, told Swerdlow that Chabot had accused him of shoving him,
and arrested him for battery. He was acquitted of the charge a year
later following a four-day jury trial.

"My attorney talked to the jury foreman afterward, who said that he
and the other jurors felt this case never should have gone to trial,"
Swerdlow says. "They couldn't believe they spent all this time on
whether a 62-year-old man had pushed a 33-year-old special-forces
guy."

Swerdlow says his attorney, David Nick, has filed claims with the
city of Rancho Cucamonga and county of San Bernardino alleging false
arrest and malicious arrest, and that a lawsuit against Chabot will
be filed "very shortly." He's convinced Chabot colluded with
likeminded friends in the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department and
D.A.'s office and orchestrated the arrest and trial in order to rid
the community of an "undesirable"-Swerdlow.

"The coalition," says Swerdlow, "is nothing more than a mouthpiece
for the law-enforcement community."

**
For their part, coalition members like Rancho Cucamonga resident Ed
Hill say the group has provided them a united voice in speaking out
against what they see as threats marijuana poses to their
communities. Hill says he joined the coalition after being told by
sheriff's officials that there was nothing they could do about a
neighbor he suspected of dealing pot. He says officers told them that
since the neighbor had a medical-marijuana card, they couldn't arrest
him unless they caught him dealing.

"I had forgotten about Prop. 215," he says. "I started doing a lot of
research into it and found it to be a very bad policy."

Hill says he worked with Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Rex
Gutierrez to help enact an ordinance prohibiting pot dispensaries
within the city's borders. Eight months later, the Claremont City
Council passed a similar prohibition, with then-mayor Ellen Taylor
the only member to vote against the ban.

"I feel that medical marijuana is not a bad thing," says Taylor, who
decided not to run for re-election. "I just thought we could make it
work. I had gone to San Francisco and Hollywood and visited the
dispensaries, and didn't see anything wrong with them. I don't know
if there's support on the council to change, but at some point this
is not going to be an issue. Taxing marijuana the way we tax liquor
or cigarettes would be boon to local government."

More than a dozen IE cities have passed similar prohibitions
against dispensaries: In nearly every case, city officials cited
both law-enforcement opposition to dispensaries and the sticky fact
that Proposition 215 conflicts with federal drug law.

This, perhaps, is the biggest reason why intelligent people of good
will can't agree on the legitimacy of medical marijuana. Lanny
Swerdlow and Paul Chabot, representing polar opposites in the legal
and social battles over cannabis, both claim the law is on their side
on the issue-and they're both right.

1 comment:

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