By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Ryan English left the Sonoma County courthouse a happy man Friday after a judge returned five boxes of marijuana seized in a raid on his Healdsburg home more than a year ago.
The 29-year-old brain tumor survivor had been charged with three felonies, including possession for sale, but two judges ruled there was insufficient evidence that any crime had been committed.
It took months of legal wrangling to get the county Sheriff’s Office to release his 81 plants and two pounds of processed pot, but English, who now lives in Santa Rosa, finally prevailed. Using a handtruck, he wheeled the weed past the jail to his car, green buds showing out of the sides of the boxes.
“Finally, 15 months later,” English said. “I’m surprised it took as long as it did.”
It was an unusual sight in the Hall of Justice, in part because law enforcement and prosecutors often won’t accept that people with a legitimate medical condition can legally possess and grow marijuana, said Joe Rogoway, English’s lawyer.
California voters in 1996 approved Proposition 215, allowing those with a doctor’s recommendation to have marijuana. Legislation in 2003 established possession limits and Sonoma County adopted its own regulations, allowing 3 pounds a year per patient and cultivation of up to 30 plants. People working in a cooperative, such as English, can grow more.
However, pot is still being seized and if charges are dismissed, police are reluctant to return marijuana, often destroying it instead.
In English’s case, Rogoway said prosecutors last year refiled criminal charges when English asked for his pot back. The second judge tossed the case after a preliminary hearing in April.
Rogoway said the “vindictive prosecution” wasted tax dollars at a time when the county can least afford it.
“They are prosecuting these cases as if there are no medical marijuana laws,” he said outside court. “They need a time machine to travel back to 1995. That’s where their understanding of the law remains.”
The District Attorney’s Office did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas said deputies respect local guidelines and seize marijuana or arrest people only if they have probable cause that a crime occurred.
Last year, Duenas said deputies seized more than 300,000 marijuana plants — the most in county history.
Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, its return requires a court order, even if charges are dropped.
“We still have to uphold the Constitution,” Duenas said. “If we release it, we will be in violation of federal law.”
He said deputies acted appropriately in the English case. The initial charges were dismissed when a detective failed to make a court hearing. Prosecutors re-filed because there was a suspicion English was selling pot, he said.
“We still believe we acted in good faith,” Duenas said.
English said he wasn’t selling pot. He was growing it for himself and two other people with medical conditions, he said.
Without it, he suffers migraine headaches from the tumor he had removed about 10 years ago.
“A doctor recommended it as an alternative to prescribed drugs,” he said. “It relieves the migraines.”
English is one of the many medical cannabis users in the county who have been thrust into the position of fighting for what is theirs, Rogoway said.
Many have yet to be vindicated for doing something the law and their doctors allow, he said.
“People shouldn’t have to go through what Mr. English did,” Rogoway said. “It’s something as a community we need to deal with.”