Ala. Patient Faces 10 Years For 1 Gram Of Medical Marijuana


Photo: Ron Crumpton
Alabama marijuana activist Loretta Nall, left, and patient Michael Lapihuska, who faces 10 years in prison for one gram of medical cannabis.

​A former Alabama resident who was back home for the holidays last December — and who is a legal medical marijuana patient in California — is facing 10 years in prison for one gram of cannabis.

Michael Lapihuska, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, grew up in Alabama, but left the state after serving 13 months for possessing five grams of marijuana in 2003, reports Phillip Smith at Stop The Drug War. He was arrested on marijuana possession charges again on December 15, 2009 in Anniston, Alabama, as he visited his family for Christmas.

Lapihuska was stopped by a police officer and accused of “illegal hitchhiking” as he walked down a road. The officer demanded he be allowed to search Lapihuska, who complied. The search revealed a prescription bottle containing one gram of marijuana.

Photo: Ron Crumpton
Lapihuska in his Alabamians for Compassionate Care t-shirt

​Explaining that he was a registered California medical marijuana patient, Lapihuska produced a patient ID card.
But Alabama justice doesn’t recognize medical marijuana yet — despite the brave efforts of groups like Alabamians for Compassionate Care (ACC) — and Lapihuska was charged with his third marijuana possession offense, punishable with between two and 10 years in state prison under Alabama law.
“Alabama is a terrible, terrible place when it comes to drug laws,” said Loretta Nall, longtime Alabama drug reform activist and leader of ACC, a medical marijuana patient support group that has taken up Lapihuska’s cause.
Lapihuska’s public defender is urging him to cop a plea in which he would be sentenced to one year, suspended, with two years’ probation. But the plea bargain also includes drug testing, which is a deal-breaker for the medical marijuana patient.
“Everyone says just take the probation, but if I did that, I’d end up in prison anyway for failing the drug test,” he said.
“This is Anniston, Alabama,” Lapihuska said. “There is no way I’m going to win this case. But my doctor told me this was my recommended medicine. If I was prescribed OxyContin, or morphine, or Xanax and was walking down the road, they would have had to give my medicine back. I broke the law, but I think the law is wrong. I’m looking at two to 10 years for a gram of marijuana prescribed by my doctor?”
Lapihuska has been unable to leave Alabama for 10 months while awaiting trial. “I’ve been miserable and anxious,” he said. “I just want to go someplace where my medicine is safe and legal and I’m not at risk for using the medicine that works best for me.”
In addition to being jailed repeatedly for marijuana, Lapihuska has been hospitalized for mental health issues 20 to 30 times, he said.

Photo: Stop The Drug War
Loretta Nall, Alabamians for Compassionate Care: “Here in Alabama, our only hope of helping Michael out if this goes to trial is to do some jury nullification work”

​”I’ve been on all sorts of medication,” Lapihuska said. “Most of my life has been eaten up with anxiety. They’ve tried Xanax, Thorazine, all kinds of things. They even gave me an anti-Parkinson’s disease medicine and told me I would have to take it the rest of my life. I would sleep 16 hours a day on those meds; I’d be shaking,” he said.
“But now, I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I ride my bicycle 50 to 150 miles a day. And now they’re arresting me for the thing that cures me.”
Lapihuska is scheduled to go to trial October 28.
“Here in Alabama, our only hope of helping Michael out if this goes to trial is to do some jury nullification work,” Nall said. “When he goes to trial, myself and other members of ACC will do some handouts at the courthouse to inform people about the true nature of the situation, that he was not just some guy smoking weed. We hope to find one person on the jury to vote to nullify.”
Nall and ACC — for whom Lapihuska has been doing volunteer work while he awaits trial — have been laying the groundwork for that by getting the story out.
“We got a great article in the Anniston Star,” Nall said. “That generated nothing but wonderful comments on the website and three letters to the editor, all positive. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback on Facebook, too.”

Photo: The Birmingham News
State Rep. Patricia Todd: “I think marijuana should be legal, and I’ll keep on fighting”

​Rep. Patricia Todd, sponsor of last year’s medical marijuana bill in Alabama, said she would introduce it for the session that begins in March 2011.
“I’ll pre-file the bill after the first of the year,” Todd said. “We plan to sit down with law enforcement and health people, and may make some changes to appease law enforcement. I think the bill will start out with three dispensaries around the state, to be regulated by the health department. I think patients being able to grow will be part of it. The main heartburn the health department has is how to regulate it, how to know who’s growing what.”
Todd expressed guarded optimism that her bill would move next year. For the first time ever last year, it got out of committee.
But much depends on the outcome of November’s elections.
“If the Republicans take over the Legislature, the bill is going nowhere,” Todd said. “If the Democrats keep control, it’ll still be an uphill battle. We got it out of committee last year; this year, I hope we can get it to a floor vote.”
“Attitudes are changing,” Todd said. “Legislators watch the news, and we have a pretty good grassroots effort going.”
Todd said that if her bill had passed last year, Lapihuska wouldn’t be facing prison.
“Our bill has the reciprocity clause in, and that would protect Michael and people like him,” she said.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” Todd said
. “He had a card that identified him as being able to use medical marijuana. I’m trying to change this, but this is the Deep South,” she sighed.
It’s not as if Alabama’s prisons have plenty of room for medical marijuana patients like Lapihuska. The state’s correctional institutions are already at 180 percent of capacity, Todd noted.
“Our corrections commissioner makes the point to the Legislature each year that he wishes we would quit passing laws to incarcerate more people,” she said. “But I’m the only one who ever votes against them.”
“Most of our elected officials are afraid that they will be perceived as soft on crime, but the War On Drugs isn’t working; we have more people addicted than ever before,” Todd said.
“I think marijuana should be legal, and I’ll keep on fighting,” she said.