Colorado Making Way for the Next Peter McWilliams


The terrific Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi reports on the sad case of Jack Branson , a 20-year HIV patient who uses medical marijuana to keep down his medication:

Would Branson give consent to these officers to conduct a warrantless search of his home in Thornton?

Well, of course he would consent—especially after, as Branson tells it, the dozen or so armed cops explained, in detail, the needless tragedies that would befall his home if they were forced to go through the trouble of returning with a warrant.

In they went.

The police, naturally, knew exactly what they were looking for and quickly seized about a dozen marijuana plants Branson was growing in the backyard.

Charged with felony cultivation and possession with intent to distribute, the 38-year-old Branson, who is in a 20-year fight with HIV, is now facing a maximum six years in prison.

Branson, who had no previous criminal record, claims that a physician named Dr. Cynthia Firnhaber verbally recommended medical marijuana to him in 2002 to help ease his pain.

"That or pick out a hospice which you'd like to die in," Branson alleges the doctor told him.

The strange thing is, this wasn't even a federal bust. It was a state task force that arrested Branson. Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000. The problem is that under that law, Branson had to have been smoking under a doctor's recommendation. The doctor who gave him that recommendation wouldn't put it in writing because she worked for the University of Colorado. The school won't allow its doctors to prescribe medical marijuana because to do so would put its federal funding at risk. Branson has since obtained written permission from another doctor, but he still must stand trial for the plants seized before he had that permission, when he was relying on the oral recommendation of the university doctor. She's now in South Africa, and it's not clear if the state will permit her to testify from out of the country.

Caught in the nexus of this sick web of federal blackmail, misplaced law enforcement priorities, and prosecutorial excess is Mr. Branson, who anticipates a slow, painful death if convicted, or if by way of a plea he is forced to give up his marijuana. He has indicated that he'll commit suicide instead.

As Harsanyi explains, it's easy to get lost in the details of this case. What's quite clear is that Branson is a very sick man. He isn't and wasn't selling marijuana. At least two doctors feel he needs it. So his apparent crime was to trust the word of a doctor who due to federal law, not state law, couldn't give him her prescription in writing. For this, and for a measly 12 plants, the state of Colorado wants to send him to prison, and possibly kill him.