Levy County is latest battleground in Florida's war on medical marijuana patients
For four days in July 1999, the Levy County Courthouse was turned into the latest battleground in the war on marijuana. Medical marijuana patients suffering from AIDS, MS, Lou Gehrigs Disease and wheelchair-bound chronic pain patients were among those packing the courtroom in Bronson. From Court T.V., to Red Zeppelin (a service dog), patient advocates and corrupt police, the courthouse at times took on a circus-like atmosphere.
In May of 1998 Joe Tacl, his wife and two adult children were arrested by Levy County Sheriffs Deputies for growing marijuana on their property; an ounce of pot was also seized from the house. Joe Tacl was hit by a car as a pedestrian while at work as a car salesman in 1993 and is permanently disabled. Joe suffers from chronic pain and has been prescribed morphine and a wide range of narcotics as well as anti nausea medications to offset the side effects of the painkillers. Anne Tacl, Joe's wife, says, "marijuana is the only thing that my husband can use that relieves both the pain and the nausea that still enables him to have some quality of life."
During the raid, a Levy County eradication helicopter hovered 60 feet over the Tacl's rural property in Bronson and deputies, without a warrant, rushed over to five, three-foot tall plants. Joe Tacl recorded the raid until police seized the videotape, which later mysteriously disappeared from evidence only to reappear at trial completely erased. After pulling up the plants, Deputies Rick Rogers and Tina Dykstra entered the house and retrieved the ounce of marijuana and a few waterpipes. As well as routine Drug War house wrecking, the cops also relieved the Tacls of a valuable antique coin collection, smashed two TVs and slashed up scuba equipment. A civil suit filed in April by Gainesville attorney Gary Edinger against the Levy County Sheriff alleging theft and vandalism is expected to be heard late this year. Rogers and Dykstra were suspended earlier this year for mislaying $400 cash stolen from a citizen in another drug investigation.
Joe and his son Michael were arrested at the scene and taken to the County jail. Joe demanded he be given his prescribed medications, orthopedic bed, and his cane, all which were denied by Sheriff Ted Glass. Later that evening, Anne Tacl returned home from work accompanied by her friends K.C. and this writer. Anne called the Sheriff to ask if there was a warrant for her arrest and was told that there was not. She was told that bail would be set in the morning for Joe and Michael. During the bond hearing Judge Joe Smith set bail excessively high "to set an example that drugs won't be tolerated in Levy County." Smith, however, did order Deputies to return the seized deeds and titles to the house and cars to Anne so she could arrange for bail. After returning the deeds to Anne, Rogers and Dykstra then placed her under arrest. Fortunately the bondsmen understood the situation and agreed to bail everyone out and complete the paperwork afterwards. Felony marijuana charges on Anne were dropped over a year later, one day before the trial.
At trial, the Tacls utilized the medical necessity defense upheld as viable by the Florida Supreme Court in 1991 for two AIDS patients and again in 1999 for a glaucoma patient. At their trial however, the jury was not permitted to see a prescription for marijuana that Joe had obtained from an American-trained doctor in the Netherlands. In 1995, Joe returned from Rotterdam to Orlando airport and was detained by customs for importing his prescribed two pounds of cannabis. An Orange County Sheriffs deputy read the prescription and refused to make an arrest. The Orlando Police Department was called and Joe was arrested on four felony counts. The Judge later dismissed all but one of the counts saying that international law protected foreign issued prescriptions. Joe later pled to a possession of marijuana charge and paid $200 in fines and costs.
Back in Bronson, at the trial, the jury was not allowed to hear any of this information. They did, however, hear from Dr. John Morgan, M.D., professor of pharmacology at C.U.N.Y. Medical school. Morgan testified that cannabis would be an appropriate and infinitely safer medicine for Joe than prescription narcotics. The only thing the State could offer in rebuttal was that Morgan was on the board of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws and that he was from out of town.
The trial, which lasted four days, took one bizarre turn after another. First, the court did not make available the hospital bed that had been prescribed for Joe so he could participate in his trial. Joe had to spend half of the day behind one of the audience pews on a futon, unable to face his accusers. On day two, Fred Shotz, PhD, who is wheel chair bound and President of the Association of Disability Advocates, tried to enter the courthouse with his service dog, Red Zeppelin. Shotz was detained by deputies and finally allowed to testify before Judge Fred Smith that he had helped write the State guidelines for access to public buildings. In some relief from the tension, Judge Smith allowed Red Zeppelin inside and told Shotz that he was glad there was someone more powerful than him in the courtroom.
Tacl's attorneys, Andy Fine of Gainesville and long time pro-bono pot attorney, Gary Wainwright of New Orleans, did the best they could only being allowed to present half of Joe's story. After the jury retired, an ominous sign was when they asked if they could be escorted out of the courthouse before anyone else could leave. Demonstrators and petitioners had gathered in and outside of the courthouse throughout and emotions were running high. When the jury came back with a verdict of guilty on all counts the audience was sad, but not surprised, that justice had not been served in Levy County. Attorney Gary Wainwright said, "in this system you are guilty until proven wealthy," referring to the fact that the Judge would not admit evidence of Joe's Dutch prescription without Dr. Trossel, his Dutch doctor, being present.
An appeal has been filed with the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee and attorneys are confident that justice will be served there. If not, it's back to the Florida Supreme Court for the third time in the nineties.
At sentencing on September 1st, Judge Fred Smith showed some compassion by giving no jail time. He gave Michael 18 months Drug Offender probation and Joe 3 years non-Drug Offender probation. Smith said, "in view of Joe Tacl's medical situation it would be impractical to drug test him." Tacl takes many prescription pain killers due to his injuries.
Both sentences were suspended pending appeal. Joe Tacl told the Judge that he and his family plan to sell their home and move to California or another western state were medical marijuana is legal. Joe is already a member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club and has a written recommendation from a California physician to use and procure marijuana. Judge Smith thought that was a good idea and implied the court would have no problem with that.
Of course the Tacls will stick around long enough to hear their civil suit against the Levy Sheriffs Office. They will also participate with Fred Shotz in an Americans with Disabilities lawsuit that will hopefully lead to a complete renovation of the Courthouse and a change in the treatment of people with disabilities at the County Jail. After sentencing, Anne Tacl said, "I hope the value of the medicine and coins the Deputies stole will help offset the cost of renovations and reforms now being demanded at the Levy County Courthouse."
Kevin Aplin works with the Cannabis Action Network. At the time of writing there are several medical marijuana cases pending in Florida, including people with multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. If you or anyone you know is arrested on marijuana charges please contact the free legal referral service run by the Cannabis Action Network at 1334 S.E. 22nd Ave, Gainesville, FL 32641 Phone (352) 378-9836.
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