DRUG WARRIORS

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Posted April 23, 2009 in Feature Story

In war, the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys often depends on which side of the battle lines you happen to be standing. 

 

But with the war on drugs, fought everywhere—on the borders and in the streets, in the courts and playgrounds, in schools and legislatures and often even in the home—figuring out where the battle lines lay is difficult at best. And nowhere are the battle lines blurrier as in the fight over the medical use of marijuana. 

 

Inland Empire residents Paul Chabot and Lanny Swerdlow are foot soldiers in that battle:  Their individual missions perfectly encapsulate the scope of the medical-marijuana dispute.  

 

Swerdlow, founder of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project and operator of the THCF Medical Clinic in Riverside, has dedicated his life toward lifting the legal and cultural barriers against the use of pot for medicinal purposes. He firmly believes marijuana to be a remarkably beneficial herb, cheap and easy to cultivate and benign on the system, criminalized for no other reason than to line the pockets of law-enforcement types like Chabot.  

 

Chabot, co-founder of the Inland Valley Drug Free Community Coalition in Riverside, has similarly dedicated himself to fighting people like Swerdlow.  Chabot believes that Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana in California, is a bad law and bad public policy, that pot is a gateway drug responsible for the ruination of far too many of the nation’s youth, and that people like Swerdlow are little more than glorified drug pushers. 

 

Were they born in a different time, it’s possible the two men might actually enjoy the other’s company. Both are intelligent, informed and affable. Both are passionate about what they do, and consider themselves dedicated servants to the public good. But in the here and now, 13 years after the passage of Prop. 215, Chabot and Swerdlow are sworn enemies.

 

Part of the reason for that is political.  

 

“More and more people are starting to see the problems that 215 have brought to our state,” Chabot, 35, says, “Especially when very healthy people can get marijuana for any condition whatsoever, including hair loss, itchy skin and high-heel pain. What does that tell young kids, growing up looking at these healthy adults smoking marijuana? We think this experiment that’s been going on has really been exposed lately as largely a Trojan horse to legalize and tax marijuana in our state.”

 

But even if that were true, asks Swerdlow, so what?  

 

“If marijuana were legalized, we’d see an increase in people using it—people like to lift their moods a bit. They just wouldn’t be doing it with alcohol,” says Swerdlow, 63. “With cannabis, people don’t have to worry about destroying their liver, as happens with alcohol and many prescription medicines. We see a lot of people with illnesses related to their alcohol or cigarette use. We never see anyone with illnesses from marijuana use. No one dies from smoking cannabis.”

 

But with Swerdlow and Chabot, their animosities run deeper than just policy differences: They despise one another. Chabot had Swerdlow arrested for battery in October 2007, claiming Swerdlow shoved him after being denied entry to a coalition meeting. Acquitted of the charge, Swerdlow says he plans to sue Chabot—and possibly the city of Rancho Cucamonga and the county of San Bernardino—over the episode.    

 

**

 

As is the case with most bitter enemies, Swerdlow and Chabot’s animosities are informed by bitter personal experiences.

 

Chabot says he came from a broken home and that, as a child, he experienced first-hand the destructive nature of marijuana.

 

“I went through drug rehab when I was 12 years old,” he says. “I used to be a pothead wanting to legalize pot when I was a kid. I now have over 22 years of sobriety. I’ve kind of ‘been there/done that’ and have been on the other side of the tracks.”

 

Once freeing himself from drug addiction, Chabot says, everything changed for the better. His biography on his website, paulchabot.com, lists an impressive resume of accomplishments for someone only 35 years old.

 

“Dr. Paul Chabot recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq where he served with U.S. Special Operations Forces as an Intelligence Officer,” the website states. “Previously he was a Senior Advisor within the White House and worked for two U.S. Presidents.  He began in 1999 as a Presidential Management Fellow. He has a B.A. in Administration from California State University at San Bernardino, a Masters of Public Administration from the University of Southern California and has a doctorate (Ed. D) in Executive Leadership from the George Washington University.”

 

Chabot, who says he plans to run for the state Assembly, founded the Inland Valley Drug Free Coalition with his wife Brenda in 2005. Brenda Chabot serves as the group’s executive director, with Paul in an advisory role. 

 

Patterned after similar coalitions in cities across the country, the group uses various strategies to influence public drug policy and perception. Its primary tactic is the media campaign: Coalition members write and submit op-ed articles—typically using highly-charged rhetoric and evoking perceived threats to children— on various drug-related concerns. 

 

The coalition addresses all drugs—including heroin, methamphetamine, prescription pills, alcohol and tobacco—identified by members as threats to the community. But of particular concern to the group is medical marijuana, given its legal status in California. In an op-ed published Sept. 3 in the The Press-Enterprise, coalition member Roger Anderson warns of a powerful and amoral pot industry behind Prop. 215:

 

“[Medical-marijuana supporters] couldn’t care less that many high school students might gather that it is OK for them to smoke marijuana,” Anderson writes. “For the drug legalization movement, these youths are their next generation of legal drug advocates. Never mind that these kids risk falling down the slippery slope of drug use, abuse and addiction.”

 

The coalition has nonprofit status under a 501(3) (c) umbrella group, Paul Chabot’s pro-clean-living Freestyle Foundation. Both organizations solicit donations to a common mailing address, a PO box in Rancho Cucamonga. Chabot says coalition members meet on an irregular basis at various members’ homes to discuss issues as they come up—a common arrangement for nonprofit activist groups. He says the coalition has more than 100 members from all walks of the IE, including off-duty police officers, parents, teachers, doctors and government officials. 

 

“We do have city council members, and government officials at all levels of government,” he says. “We also have community heroes: war vets, retired police officers, reformed drug addicts and ordinary moms and dads who are in the trenches across the community trying to keep their own kids off drugs.”

 

Asked to identify some of the government officials involved, Chabot declined, citing safety concerns. Coalition members, he says, have in the past received death threats from anonymous callers. Two days after being interviewed, he emailed me an audio clip of a voicemail in which the caller raged for nearly five minutes against Chabot, member Tom Beard and their wives.  

 

“You people are evil!” the caller shouts. “When you use the federal government against me as a weapon, that’s no different than me using a gun against you!”

 

**

 

Swerdlow, 63, also admits to smoking pot as a youth, but his was a much more positive experience than Chabot’s. Further, he says, he never stopped.

 

“I’ve been smoking cannabis all my life,” he says. “My friends and I would kick back after class and roll five or six joints while listening to [1950s television drama series] Firesign Theater. I didn’t think much about the medical effects of it until 95, when I had a friend with AIDS.”

 

 Swerdlow describes watching his friend wither from being heavy-set to positively skeletal. The only thing that seemed to help the friend with loss of appetite, he said, was weed.  

 

“I thought to myself, ‘My god, this stuff really helps him,’” Swerdlow recalls. “Remember, this was ’95, when AIDS was a death sentence. But the problem with marijuana at the time was we had to go on the streets and deal with criminals to get it.”

 

But he says he didn’t become “radicalized” on the issue of medical marijuana until he became a registered nurse. It wasn’t just that he noticed pot seemed to help sick people regain their appetites. He says he also encountered, again and again, desperately ill patients for whom a joint or a brownie provided relief where FDA-approved drugs had failed:  heart patients who found pot calmed their nerves better than sedatives, multiple sclerosis patients whose livers were shot by pain pills and could no longer take them, terminal cancer patients whose nausea was eased and spirits lifted by marijuana highs.

 

“The California Nurses Association supports the medical use of cannabis, as does the American Nurses Association,” he says. “I’ve never encountered a nurse who opposes medical marijuana. They know it makes patients feel better, plus they know it doesn’t hurt patients.”

 

Swerdlow says he researched the history of cannabis as a medicinal herb, and was astonished at what he found. 

 

“Seventy years ago, your grandparents could go to a drugstore and get it,” he says. “It was prescribed all the time for women, and was considered the best thing to ever happen when it came to women’s complaints. There are records of cannabis being used 5,000 years ago as a medicine. After 5,000 years of use for almost everything, it’s suddenly looked upon as so dangerous that you can’t even study it at a university.”

 

San Bernardino County—like other counties—does not officially recognize the legitimacy of 215.

 

When asked his opinion on why the medical use of cannabis is so anathema to law enforcement agencies, Swerdlow says, “Money. Authorities arrest 870,000 people a year for cannabis-related offenses. Police can seize your home if you’re caught growing marijuana. They can seize your car if you’re caught buying it. That money goes straight to law enforcement in seizure-asset-forfeiture funds. 

 

“Think about that,” he adds. “If police catch a murderer, they can’t seize the home. If they catch a bank robber, they can’t seize the car. But they can seize your home or your car if you’re caught with marijuana.”

 

In 2007, Swerdlow was asked by Paul Stanford, founder of The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation (THCF), if he’d be interested in running a medical-marijuana clinic Stanford was considering opening in Palm Springs. Swerdlow suggested a clinic in Riverside instead, since Palm Springs already had such an operation.  From that conversation sprang The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation Clinic at 647 Main St., Riverside, one of eight THCF facilities across the western U.S. and Michigan. 

 

Located in an office park down the street from the Riverside Golf Course, the clinic evaluates and advises patients seeking medical pot. It has four paid staffers, including a medical physician—Dr. Paul Ironside. Swerdlow, who serves as medical director, says patients provide the clinic with their medical records, are evaluated for need, and—if they qualify—are provided the necessary documentation to obtain a medical-marijuana ID card from a county agency. For this service they’re charged a flat fee of $125 (less, with Medi-Cal or Medicare), refundable if they’re found unqualified.

 

While patient records are strictly confidential, Swerdlow says the clinic processed 500 patients in its first year of operation.

 

“The reason we [write recommendations] is because most doctors won’t,” he says. “Physicians are threatened by the DEA that they could have their license to write prescriptions revoked if they do. There’s a court case challenging that right now, but most doctors won’t risk it—losing their license would put them out of business. Instead, a number of doctors refer patients to us.”

 

The clinic is also one of four meeting places for the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, a group Swerdlow started in 1999 to educate the public on cannabis-related issues. The Project holds monthly seminars and discussion groups in Joshua Tree, Landers, Palm Springs and Riverside.

 

** 

 

The close proximity of two such disparate organizations—Swerdlow’s clinic in Riverside and Chabot’s coalition in Rancho Cucamonga—was bound to result in a collision. Swerdlow says he first learned of the coalition in an August 2007 newspaper article. 

 

“I found it incredible that this anti-drug group was so focused on medical marijuana,” he says. “Wouldn’t meth be considered a bigger problem? I learned that the group was having a meeting in Rancho—advertised as a public meeting—so I decided to attend.”

 

Chabot declined to discuss anything about the ensuing incident for this article, saying it had already been hashed out in the press. Swerdlow says he was recognized by one of Chabot’s associates as soon as he entered the James T. Brulte Senior Center in Rancho Cucamonga, and that Chabot demanded he leave. What happened next is a matter of great dispute, but at some point San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies arrived, told Swerdlow that Chabot had accused him of shoving him, and arrested him for battery. He was acquitted of the charge a year later following a four-day jury trial.

 

 “My attorney talked to the jury foreman afterward, who said that he and the other jurors felt this case never should have gone to trial,” Swerdlow says. “They couldn’t believe they spent all this time on whether a 62-year-old man had pushed a 33-year-old special-forces guy.”

 

Swerdlow says his attorney, David Nick, has filed claims with the city of Rancho Cucamonga and county of San Bernardino alleging false arrest and malicious arrest, and that a lawsuit against Chabot will be filed “very shortly.” He’s convinced Chabot colluded with likeminded friends in the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and D.A.’s office and orchestrated the arrest and trial in order to rid the community of an “undesirable”—Swerdlow. 

 

 “The coalition,” says Swerdlow, “is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the law-enforcement community.”

 

**

For their part, coalition members like Rancho Cucamonga resident Ed Hill say the group has provided them a united voice in speaking out against what they see as threats marijuana poses to their communities. Hill says he joined the coalition after being told by sheriff’s officials that there was nothing they could do about a neighbor he suspected of dealing pot. He says officers told them that since the neighbor had a medical-marijuana card, they couldn’t arrest him unless they caught him dealing. 

 

“I had forgotten about Prop. 215,” he says. “I started doing a lot of research into it and found it to be a very bad policy.”

 

Hill says he worked with Rancho Cucamonga City Councilman Rex Gutierrez to help enact an ordinance prohibiting pot dispensaries within the city’s borders. Eight months later, the Claremont City Council passed a similar prohibition, with then-mayor Ellen Taylor the only member to vote against the ban. 

 

“I feel that medical marijuana is not a bad thing,” says Taylor, who decided not to run for re-election. “I just thought we could make it work. I had gone to San Francisco and Hollywood and visited the dispensaries, and didn’t see anything wrong with them. I don’t know if there’s support on the council to change, but at some point this is not going to be an issue. Taxing marijuana the way we tax liquor or cigarettes would be boon to local government.”

 

  More than a dozen IE cities have passed similar prohibitions against dispensaries:  In nearly every case, city officials cited both law-enforcement opposition to dispensaries and the sticky fact that Proposition 215 conflicts with federal drug law. 

 

This, perhaps, is the biggest reason why intelligent people of good will can’t agree on the legitimacy of medical marijuana. Lanny Swerdlow and Paul Chabot, representing polar opposites in the legal and social battles over cannabis, both claim the law is on their side on the issue—and they’re both right.  

 


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