Cannabis crusaders | Creating enemies for America
Despite an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, the co-founders of a Colorado medical marijuana club are standing by their rights—and their patients.
by Grace Hood
Thomas and Larisa Lawrence have overcome many unforeseen obstacles since starting the Colorado Compassion Club, an organization that provides information and medical marijuana to licensed patients. They've faced a drug raid by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a scary visit from a recreational pot-smoking stranger and a drive-by shooting.
Despite these past trials, the largest challenge for Thomas and Larisa may be just ahead. On June 6, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 on Raich vs. Ashcroft, which affirmed the federal government's ability to prosecute medical marijuana users, even if they live in a state like Colorado where medical marijuana use is legal. While the DEA says it won't actively pursue smokers of medical marijuana, the decision opened the door for federal prosecution of medical marijuana use, which raises questions for members of the Colorado Compassion Club and for the Lawrences—who have unfinished business with the DEA.
Since last Monday's ruling, the phone in Thomas and Larisa's Denver dwelling has been ringing off the hook with calls from members and non-members alike. While some callers were confused about what exactly the ruling meant, many more were concerned about Thomas and Larisa disappearing as a result of it.
"People just needed to hear that we're not really going away, that we're not hiding," says Larisa. "Everybody just wants us to continue."
Club members who have contacted Thomas and Larisa have had varied responses to the ruling. Some of the Lawrence's patients were discouraged by it and have chosen to discontinue using marijuana for medicinal purposes. As demonstrated by their most recent weekly Wednesday meeting, which an estimated 100 people attended, a somewhat larger contingent plans to continue using the drug but needed a bit of affirmation from Thomas and Larisa.
The two aren't afraid to go to bat to preserve their pot. In January, Thomas was stopped by a Denver police officer who was more than skeptical that his marijuana was for medicinal purposes and confiscated an ounce of his "medicine" and two pipes. After a failed attempt to regain his belongings with a court property disposition, Thomas successfully repossessed his drugs this March, making him the first to do so with the Denver cops.
But while the Lawrences have successfully fought and won one court battle, there may be a more difficult one looming on the horizon. Last year on June 1, the DEA raided Thomas and Larisa's house. In addition to taking between $5,000 and $10,000 worth of equipment and lighting, the DEA confiscated 12 ounces of loose marijuana and all 84 of the Lawrence's marijuana plants, which are estimated at $1,000 a piece. Colorado law allows licensed marijuana patients to possess no more than six marijuana plants and two ounces of usable marijuana.
Even though they exceeded the state legal limits, Thomas and Larisa filed a petition with the DEA, attempting to get their equipment returned. They have not yet received a response.
"We've done all of the requests that we can to get our equipment back, and they haven't responded to our last request," says Thomas. "We're stuck in limbo until they respond to that."
When reached for comment regarding the Lawrences' case, Jeff Dorschner, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver, said there is currently no deadline for returning the Lawrences' belongings.
"I can simply cite that there is an ongoing investigation as the reason for it not being returned," he said.
And that's not the only thing that's up in the air. According to Thomas and Larisa, the federal government has seven years to decide whether they will press charges against them for the items confiscated by the DEA. Under the best-case scenario, Thomas and Larisa could get their belongings returned, while the worst-case scenario could mean life in prison.
But until the feds come knocking at their door, the Lawrences will continue the Colorado Compassion Club. According to Larisa, the stakes are too high right now for their patients, who have few alternatives.
"We have zero margin of error in what we do," she says. "The majority of our patients have exhausted all other resources in their lives."
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