Minister of Marijuana

Scott Imler’s voice is less urgent, less ravaged, than it was two years ago, when he was on a hunger strike to save the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, which he founded in West Hollywood in 1996. He exudes tranquillity, now that his struggle and a bout with cancer are behind him. John Ashcroft’s leaving Washington, D.C., doesn’t hurt, either.

West Hollywood officials who supported the defunct CRC, making their city ground zero for the medical-marijuana debate, wish they were at peace. Though city officials have withdrawn support for pot clubs, the U.S. Justice Department isn’t done with them yet.

"I have two more weeks on probation, I survived cancer, and John Ashcroft is stepping down; that’s three really good things," says Imler, who since 2002 has faced possible jail time, undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and had half of his left lung cut out. If Ashcroft had had his way, Imler might have died in jail. Instead, Imler is a free man and has joined a Methodist seminary — a decision Ashcroft might applaud. "It’s funny, we’re both from Missouri," Imler says. "I doubt Jesus is from there."

John Duran, mayor of West Hollywood, remembers when Imler arrived on the scene in the 1990s and began running the CRC out of the United Methodist Church. Though the city was fertile ground for gay and lesbian and transgender issues, distributing marijuana to terminally ill patients seemed risky. "We had our doubts about Scott. People thought he was this fringe character," Duran says on the eve of the city’s 20th anniversary. "But through his perseverance, intellect and compassion, he moved the debate from the margins. He became a leader, respected by the highest law enforcers in the state."

Federal agents raided the CRC on October 25, 2001. They seized computers, medical files, bank accounts, 400 plants and 10 pounds of harvested pot belonging to 900 members of the most aboveboard cannabis club in the country. The CRC, 90 percent of whose members suffered from cancer or AIDS, had received support from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. The Los Angeles Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office laid off the CRC, which complied strictly with the state’s medical-marijuana law, Proposition 215, approved by voters in 1996. Prop. 215 allows pot use with a doctor’s recommendation.

The Justice Department investigated Imler and later charged him with maintaining a place where marijuana could be obtained. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Internal Revenue Service filed forfeiture actions against the CRC’s building and assets in excess of $1.2 million. One federal judge sentenced Imler to probation and excoriated the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecuting him in the first place; another federal judge ruled that West Hollywood must forfeit $300,000 that the city loaned the center. The CRC’s members now score pot on the street, from other cannabis clubs operating in West Hollywood, or go without.

These days, Imler is just as focused on healing others as he was before Ashcroft threatened to jail him. In five years he will be ordained as a Methodist minister. He sees parallels between the CRC and the church. "They both provide sanctuary and nurture their flock," he says. "CRC was a manifestation of my faith, as secular as it was at the time. It’s ironic another person who claims faith in the same God came to rub us out."

In 1996, Imler, a former special-education teacher who suffered chronic seizures, had come down from Santa Cruz after helping draft Prop. 215, along with activist Dennis Peron and attorney Wlliam Panzer. He started a buyers’ club that supplied users with a daily menu, sometimes acquiring the drug on the black market. Patients like Pedro Jimenez, an AIDS sufferer, used pot to choke down 35 medications a day. It alleviated side effects such as diarrhea and vomiting. Imler thought they would not survive as an underground organization, so he met with lawyers, West Hollywood officials and former Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block to establish the ground rules for running a cannabis club under Prop. 215. When Baca became sheriff, he insisted that the CRC stop buying on the black market. The CRC took up cultivation and contracted with farmers up in Ventura.

In 2000, after Imler and others put up $150,000 of their own money, the city co-signed a loan from Wells Fargo Bank and the CRC bought a building on Santa Monica Boulevard. The CRC, a nonprofit group, grew to 10 full-time employees and 24 volunteers, with a budget of $1.2 million. It had a database of 450 licensed physicians and 960 members that Imler carefully screened, "to make sure there were no tweakers." West Hollywood further cemented its reputation as a bastion of progressivism. The CRC developed a reputation for fastidiousness and moderation. At its peak it maintained 1,000 plants — one per member. Members paid $50 for an eighth of an ounce, but sometimes less because of disability. "We never wanted our volume to attract the black market," Imler says.

The city and the CRC attracted a more determined foe. In 1998, DEA agents had posed as patients sporting phony doctor’s prescriptions in a sting operation that brought down the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical usage was no exception to the federal Controlled Substances Act. Ashcroft declared open season on pot clubs all over the country, but particularly in California. West Hollywood was an irresistible target. He received support from conservative lawmakers such as U.S. Representative Bob Barr, from Georgia, who declared, "Terminally ill patients have been used as pawns in a cynical political game designed to weaken society’s opposition to drug abuse."

The October 2001 raid of the CRC was devastating for Imler and the club’s members. In the summer of 2002, they went on a weeklong hunger strike to protest what they saw as draconian enforcement of the federal law by the Bush administration. Not only did they lose their initial investment and all the CRC’s assets, Imler was criminally prosecuted. "Scott had taken every measure possible to ensure the club could not be abused," says Ronald Kaye, a former federal public defender who represented Imler in his criminal case and the civil forfeiture action. "He knew that nothing should undermine his mission."

Imler was sentenced to one year’s probation in November 2003. In handing down his sentence, U.S. District Judge Howard Matz told Imler, who by then had been diagnosed with lung cancer, "This entire prosecution was badly misguided. To allocate the resources of the

DEA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to [prosecuting] you baffles me, disturbs me." Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles had by then intimated to Imler that they were simply following Ashcroft’s marching orders. U.S. Attorney Debra Yang never appeared to resist the mandate, however. Her staff pushed for jail time, and lost.

While Imler has moved on with his life, West Hollywood is still mired in forfeiture proceedings in federal court. Officials neither support nor oppose the cannabis clubs that have sprung up in place of the CRC. Wells Fargo has written off its share of the loan to the CRC. Recently, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real ruled in favor of the Justice Department’s seizing $300,000 from the city, "in the face of an exhaustive catalog of facts that shows the city had reason to believe it could not be subject to drug forfeiture laws," according to West Hollywood City Attorney Michael Jenkins. "I feel like Alice in Wonderland," Jenkins says. "It is particularly galling to know that there are more than 20 cannabis clubs operating all over the state, including here in West Hollywood."

Observers say it is remarkable that West Hollywood remained so loyal to the CRC, even after it became clear that Ashcroft was going to make an example of them. Whereas once they were on the forefront, now they must be passive, which goes against the city’s ethos. "There’s a level of integrity among the city’s leaders that is uncommon for public officials," Kaye says. "The city stood behind Scott and the CRC because they knew the organization was incorruptible. It took more commitment than supporting gay marriage. There was a risk of criminal prosecution. Now they’re getting screwed."

Reflecting on the ordeal from his home in Silver Lake, which he shares with his partner of 17 years, Imler says he suffered a loss of identity after the CRC closed. "I didn’t feel like a person at first," he says. "Cancer was actually a blessing. It broke the circuits in my mind and forced me back to zero. I thought I was going to die."

Yet he still has remorse over not reopening the CRC and continuing the fight. "A lot of people depended on us," he says. Perhaps his ministry of faith would bring him back to West Hollywood, it is suggested. "I would like nothing more than to be appointed to a church there," says Imler. Replies Duran, the mayor of West Hollywood, "We’d be delighted to have him back."


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