Courts & Crime

Deep-sea diver in test case over medical pot

atthew Zugsberger checked his luggage at Sacramento International Airport in December 2008, with marijuana bags concealed in a metal dominoes case and duct-taped inside a wetsuit.

He cleared security with another stash in his pants.

On Tuesday, the former deep sea diver, who says he has used marijuana to treat his pain since crushing vertebrae in an oil platform accident, went on trial in Sacramento Superior Court on felony charges that could land him in prison for four years.

He also took the stage – and the witness stand – in a test case over how much medical pot is suitable for possession and transport for personal use.

Prosecutor Satnam Rattu argued there is only one conclusion to draw from Zugsberger's attempt to take more than 3 pounds of marijuana on a flight to New Orleans: He intended to sell a lot of pot.

"Medical marijuana is legal in California to a certain extent," Rattu told the jury. "This case exceeds those limits."

But Zugsberger's defense lawyer, Grant Pegg, told jurors Zugsberger had ample reason to be carrying that amount: a legitimate medical condition and a physician's recommendation.

Dr. Milan Hopkins, a former general practitioner who runs a Mendocino County "alternative medi-spa" featuring herbal treatments and laser hair removal, gave Zugsberger his clinic's standard recommendation. It reads: "Any one of my patients may need to grow 25 mature plants and possess 5 pounds of cannabis for their yearly medical needs."

Zugsberger, who turned 34 Tuesday, argues that authorities had no right to arrest him or take his pot once they realized he was a medical marijuana patient with a recommendation that more than covered the amount he possessed.

He hopes his case will be bolstered by a Jan. 21 California Supreme Court ruling that found the state cannot impose limits on the amount of pot that medical marijuana users can grow or possess.

A Sacramento police detective testified Tuesday that Zugsberger had enough pot to smoke every two hours for a year. But the legal discussion focused less on how much pot medical users are able to smoke than on how much they can eat.

Zugsberger testified he was taking the marijuana to New Orleans so that his ex-wife, a gourmet cook, and another master chef could meld it into pasta and ice cream for his use, because he has difficulty smoking.

He told jurors he ingests at least 13 grams of pot a day, "some smoked, mostly eaten," and that he consumes up to a quarter-pound on days of extreme nausea or pain.

"My tolerance is up there," he said.

The prosecution showed little tolerance for the defense's expert witness, Chris Conrad, a marijuana legalization advocate who once won a marijuana "freedom fighter" award from High Times magazine.

Conrad said it is common for medical users to possess as much as 3 pounds of marijuana, particularly if it is being used in food, which diminishes the potency.

Rattu, the prosecutor, pointed out that Conrad has no formal medical training. And he read a passage from Conrad's writings portraying medical marijuana advocates as "patriots" akin to abolitionists who helped free slaves.

Despite the state Supreme Court's decision tossing out limits for medical pot possession, legal observers say Zugsberger is not necessarily protected by his physician's recommendation.

"I don't think a 5-pound recommendation could stand up in court for any medical condition," said Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor and an attorney in the Supreme Court case.

Uelmen represented Patrick Kelly, a Long Beach man who said he was using marijuana for back problems and depression. Kelly was charged with possession for sale for having 12 ounces of marijuana.

The Supreme Court threw out Kelly's conviction, saying the Legislature improperly amended the Proposition 215 medical marijuana law by restricting medical users to 8 ounces of dried pot.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.