EAST WENATCHEE — Saúl Ramos Sanchez got stopped for a traffic violation, but he wasn’t arrested for it. The cannabis in his glove box was another matter.
Since that misdemeanor arrest in June for possessing less than 40 grams of pot plus a doctor’s card authorizing it for medical purposes, the 19-year-old Rock Island man has become the only East Wenatchee Municipal Court defendant in at least two years to have his patient status challenged under Washington’s cannabis law.
Although Ramos had a medical card validating his possession of pot, East Wenatchee City Attorney Devin Poulson refused to dismiss the case, demanded Ramos’s medical records, asked a judge to strip him of his medical defense, and told the defendant’s lawyer he doesn’t believe clients like Ramos — who claims to suffer the effects of a back injury — have legitimate medical conditions that justify marijuana use.
“I don’t believe these young guys are suffering from a terminable (sic) or debilitating disease,” Poulson wrote to public defender Kambra Mellergaard in an August email obtained by The Wenatchee World. “The doc just signs the card.”
It’s a new stance for Poulson, who previously dismissed many possession cases that involved a medical authorization — despite a record of bumping up East Wenatchee’s prosecution rate. Poulson would not comment for this story, saying he does not discuss city legal matters with the news media. Ramos, too, declined to comment, on Mellergaard’s advice.
On Nov. 14, Municipal Court Judge Chancey Crowell turned down Poulson’s motion to deny the medical-use defense, restoring Ramos’s claim to immunity under the medical pot statute. He’ll appear in court again today, ahead of a trial date later this month.
Of 34 cases of misdemeanor pot possession brought to East Wenatchee court since January 2011, Ramos is the only one whose medical defense claim has been challenged. He’s also unusual in that there are no other criminal offenses pending from his arrest — most of the city court’s other pot cases involved related offenses such as speeding, suspended driver’s licenses, DUI or lack of vehicle insurance. All but two of the arrests resulted from traffic stops.
Of those 34 cases, five defendants pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor possession charge. Seventeen pot charges were dismissed by the city, often in exchange for pleas to the related crimes. Seven prosecutions were deferred or vacated when the defendants agreed to probation or substance-abuse counseling. The remaining cases are still in progress.
“Typically, the cases I’ve handled, people don’t have a medicinal marijuana card — and when they do, there’s all kind of other crimes going along with it, so they don’t really meet the terms of the statute,” Mellergaard said.
The state law allows patients with “terminal or debilitating medical conditions” — with written authorization from their doctors — to possess up to 24 ounces of marijuana without fear of arrest. (It does not, however, allow possession of a marijuana pipe or other paraphernalia.) With a doctor’s authorization, they can offer an “affirmative defense” in court, proving their medical status and nullifying prosecution. Qualifying conditions include cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and “some forms of intractable pain.”
Ramos, now an agricultural worker, claims he injured his back March 1 working in an East Wenatchee fast-food kitchen. The pain was severe enough to merit a trip to Central Washington Hospital, according to court filings.
A letter submitted for court by East Wenatchee physician Dr. Robert Anderson, who signed Ramos’s cannabis card, says Ramos couldn’t tolerate the Motrin and Vicodin recommended for his injury and subsequent muscle spasming. Anderson wrote his authorization for medical cannabis on March 9.
Ramos found relief mostly from topical cannabis-based muscle ointments along with smoked marijuana, said Pamela Woodard, who provided Ramos’s cannabis through the Wenatchee Valley Holistic Health community garden she manages. With it, he was able to return to work.
At 8:44 p.m. June 22, Ramos drove his green Honda Civic out of the East Wenatchee McDonald’s onto southbound Valley Mall Parkway. East Wenatchee Police Officer James Johnson stopped him for turning into the inside lane of travel, rather than the outside.
Asked for his license and registration, Ramos told the officer he had a small baggie of marijuana in his glove box, and showed his doctor’s authorization card. Johnson didn’t cite Ramos for the traffic violation, but confiscated the baggie and ticketed him for possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana.
A native of Mexico who came to the Wenatchee Valley with his family eight years ago, Ramos feared a conviction or guilty plea to the misdemeanor — punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine — could damage his visa status. He has no prior criminal record, but a conviction for possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana can be grounds for deportation.
Poulson, appointed city attorney in 2006, estimates he’s brought the number of municipal criminal cases from 400 a year to more than 700, with seven or eight jury trials annually. In the decade prior to his appointment, he said during his campaign for a Washington Appellate Court judgeship last summer, East Wenatchee Municipal Court held three jury trials total.
Asking Poulson to drop the charge, Mellergaard first turned over a Sept. 11 letter from Anderson, which said Ramos “met the criteria for a certifiable medical condition under the medical marijuana law” but did not specify his ailment. Poulson refused, writing in a court brief that “he needs to disclose which terminal or debilitating condition he has already been diagnosed with.”
“Possession of marijuana, even in small amounts, is still a crime in the state of Washington,” he wrote.
“He’s basically indicated he thinks these cards are given out willy-nilly,” Mellergaard said.
When Ramos came to court Oct. 10, Poulson moved to strike his affirmative defense, saying he hadn’t shown proof that he suffered a condition specified by the cannabis law. Crowell at first agreed, then reinstated Ramos’s affirmative defense claim after Mellergaard asked him to reconsider. She also submitted a new letter from Anderson that spells out Ramos’s injury, saying his earlier letters had been vague to protect confidentiality.
“If I don’t get to put on an affirmative defense, we don’t have a defense,” Mellergaard said. “I mean, it was in his car. There you go.”
Only a handful of medical marijuana defenses are put forward in NCW courts each year. Chelan County District Court public defenders said they handle perhaps three to four annually, in a court where 1,700 misdemeanors were filed in 2011.
Ramos’s court date today comes one day before Washington’s I-502 becomes law, permitting people over 21 up to an ounce of marijuana for personal consumption. Some NCW county prosecutors have said they will drop many of the 10 to 15 misdemeanor pot cases now pending, in light of the vote.
Those measures won’t affect Ramos’s court situation, nor other patients claiming a medical defense.
“This is somebody with no arrest record, no criminal record ... and this court intends to make a criminal out of him, and label him a drug addict at the same time,” said Woodard. “And he’s not any of those things.”