Sunday, July 26, 2009

Surviving the Great Recession

My friend Faith told me recently that I must write.

“I’m telling yuh, Stace’, you’re one of the great American writers. Yuh got a book in you, I know it. Yuh gotta write that book….”

“Thanks, Faith.” I tried not laughing.

“I’m serious, Stace’, you gotta do it. I’ve been telling y-o-u-u for eight years now.” (She does that you thing, drawing out the vowels, as a way to show her love. Otherwise, in chatty mode, it’s just plain old “yuh,” or simple “you.”)

I’ve been out of work since January and, like many unemployed Americans, haven’t had much luck finding anything new. I’ve been a writer, editor and publisher. When times have been tough, I’ve picked up side jobs installing native landscapes, or working as a farmhand.

Lately, however, the terrain in these endeavors looks bleak. Print is going out of style, no one is spending money on new landscapes and farmers are getting shut off from water. The unemployment rate continues to climb.

“Maybe this is God’s way of telling you to start writing…or, get yourself a job as a teacher. You know you’re a good teacher.”

I tried not laughing again. “Thanks, Faith. You’re probably right….”

“I know I’m right…. So, how’s your mom?”

Mom’s doing fine, I told her. She has little red marks where they’ll begin radiating her torso. She’s in good spirits. The lumpectomy on her breast went well and the prognosis is good.

Today, mom’s driving in the ghastly humid air pollution of Orange County, accompanying a friend to the hospital. Her friend just had reconstructive surgery to replace a breast that was removed for cancer. The doctors want to re-dress the bandages.

It’s been quite an ordeal. We visited mom’s friend at her home yesterday. She looked exhausted, surrounded by family and friends, recovering from the first of three phases of reconstructing a new breast.

She won’t slow down because there’s work to be done. No rest for the wicked, they say. She runs a little business out of her garage. Though she needs a little down time from major surgery, she keeps pushing herself.

“At her age, I don’t understand why she’d want to put herself through all this,” mom said recently.

They’ve known each other for more than 40 years, and as they approach their 70s, it doesn’t make sense to mom why a woman their age would care about replacing a cancerous breast.

“I understand, mom. She doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror. Nobody likes to see themselves disfigured.”

Later, as mom packed her purse to drive with her friend to the hospital, she said: “I really dread going out today.”


She looked at me in disgust. “Bellflower?” she moaned. The undercurrent of her voice and expression were clear: Who wants to go to Bellflower on a day like this?

Not me.

We’re in the middle of a heat wave, temperatures rising to 90 degrees for nearly a week, humidity more than 50 percent. It’s really not a good day to be out. An occasional coastal breeze momentarily lifts the stifling air—a putrid heavy blanket of humidity—to cool things down. One second in the sun and it feels like boiling.

I admire mom, because I sure couldn’t go to Bellflower today; the oppressive Southern California heat feels like a wet metal clamp, working at the lungs, throat and nerves, bringing out a profuse film of sweat across my back and forehead.

The feeling is: I can’t breathe.

I try not to move but sit at the computer and think: What book am I going to write? I need to eat. I need an income. I need a job.

Poor mom, I think. I’d hate to be in a car right now, stuck in traffic, sticky, only to go sit in a hospital and wait. Mom went with her friend because she loves her and would do anything for her, no matter how oppressive the weather, or the economy.

Faith is like that too—a real friend.

I don’t know exactly which book Faith had in mind; mom’s said the same thing: “When are you going to write your book?” They might be right—at least about getting busy with…something. Nothing else seems to be working.

Like a lot of people in America, I’m figuring out how to survive the Great Recession.

“Get yourself an advance,” Faith offered, pressing home her point. “I’m sure somebody would pay you to write a book.”

I’ve tried those. They’re great in a pinch but don’t always work out so well, especially in an unstable economy, where every penny spent is on survival.

The upheaval in publishing has wracked more than its share of careers. The trend to push everything online has put a lot of writers and artists out of business.

Worse, news pros with the skills to track government malfeasance have largely disappeared from the information landscape. So-called “citizen journalists” without any formal training are filling the gap.

Dollar-conscious online news organizations are hiring a smattering of experienced journalists to edit and rewrite content from lesser-experienced contributors, who have little or no training, and who send their material free of charge.

Meanwhile, journalists, literary authors, poets, as well as talented cartoonists, illustrators and painters are going, like everyone else, to the Internet to find their place and fortune in the over-fat world of digital information.

They’re all becoming bloggers.

In the world of blog, there are riches. So that’s what people say. The operative word today, of course, is “search engine optimization.” All I need to do is figure out how to get my blog to rise to the top of everyone’s search.

The SEO pros say I’ve got to insert various keywords into my narrative. It’s like any other sales pitch. With these magic words, and the Internet voodoo of SEO, I can build a solid financial base and launch a career from my home.

It sounds great, and I look forward to that tipping-point moment when all of the sudden the floodgates open, readers arrive in droves and the money starts pouring in again.

Until then, the picture remains stark.

The only breath of fresh air in Orange County’s stifling humidity and the nation’s oppressive economy are people like mom and Faith, women with Old School values who would do anything for their friends. §

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A snitch is a snitch is a snitch

The New Times of San Luis Obispo County reported last week on the exploits of drug informant and police imposter Daniel Victor Lee, who helped destroy the Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary run by Charles C. Lynch.

In a cover story titled,
“Snitch,” the alternative weekly’s Kylie Mendonca notes that during a seven-month period, Lee “worked on ten cases, being paid a total of $8,185” by the SLO County Sheriff’s Department.

Along the way, Lee helped the sheriff track down users with as little as five grams of marijuana, about a $50 value, to the more notorious set-up in which one of Lynch’s employees, Abrahm Baxter, sold $3,200 worth of marijuana in the Big 5 parking lot in San Luis Obispo.

Baxter, whose sale had nothing to do with Lynch’s dispensary (which federal prosecutors disupted), was sentenced to 120 days in jail.

In another shakedown, thanks to Lee, police seized 25 pounds of marijuana and four pounds of hashish. One of the men arrested in the case, Elbert Shoemate, later committed suicide.

The sheriff’s department claims an uneasy alliance with snitches such as Lee—
—most are themselves drug abusers or face other criminal charges—but argues that without them (referred to as "turncoats," "rats," "squealers") it's difficult, sometimes impossible, to take out the big-time drug dealers.

“It’s not pleasant, no one enjoys it, but it’s part of the way we do business. If you didn’t have informants, then a lot of major cases would go unsolved,” the New Times quoted Sgt. Rick Neufeld of the county’s Narcotics Task Force.

Informant Lee has a history of criminal charges starting with three felony counts from which he walked in Orange County in 2002, the New Times reports. He also was charged with impersonating a police officer.

In an ironic twist, Lee, who resides outside SLO County, was scheduled to board a plane to be a witness for Baxter but never appeared for testimony because he was kicked off the plane “for allegedly stealing from another passenger’s purse.”

Meanwhile, Lynch's life has been turned upside-down.

Judge George Wu sentenced Lynch last month to one year, one day in federal prison for “selling large quantities of marijuana,”
the government argued, from his Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary. Lynch remains free pending appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court.

Federal prosecutor David Kowal is appealing Wu’s decision, demanding that Lynch serve the full five-year minimum mandatory sentence.

Wu, Lynch says, “didn’t even want to give me one year.” But the judge was unable to get around the stickier points of mandatory sentencing laws, Lynch adds.

Kowal's appeal runs contrary to early indications from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that the Obama government would leave medical marijuana dispensaries and their proprietors alone.

Kowal would have had to get permission from the Department of Justice to pursue a sentencing appeal, Lynch says, adding that he feels like the government is harassing him.

In the two years since his arrest, Lynch lost his business, declared bankruptcy, and is in imminent danger of losing his home. Additionally, Lynch has had difficulty finding work.

With his case on appeal, and the uncertainty of his future, prospective employers have been hesitant to put him on the payroll, Lynch says.

"Maybe the government is trying to make an example of me," Lynch says of Kowal's appeal.

“I’m not giving up either,” he adds, "I’m making my appeal too. I just wish it would all end.”

Lynch says the ordeal has taken a toll on his life, having lost nearly everything he owns. He travels twice a month to Los Angeles to be tested for drugs and lives by the day.

“It definitely makes life unplannable,” Lynch says. “The only good thing about it all is that I’m not in jail, but I’m thinking maybe I should just go and get it over with. At least I’d have free room and board.” §

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eddy Lepp's final walk of freedom

Marijuana activist Eddy Lepp took his final walk as a free man this week before turning himself in to serve a minimum mandatory 10-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif.

The Lake County resident, who cultivated thousands of plants for patients and Rastafarians, drove through San Luis Obispo County, where he contacted Charles C. Lynch, before continuing on for prison processing.

Lynch, also recently convicted of selling medical marijuana from his Morro Bay dispensary and sentenced last month to one year, one day in federal prison, joined Lepp for his final leg of freedom.

Lynch remains free pending appeal.

“During that last mile,” Lynch wrote in an article for the Salem News, “Eddy stated that he was not afraid of jail as his camera man and others listened in great admiration and sorrow.

“They passed around one more cigarette of the sacred herb and Eddy drank a Dr. Pepper as his camera man recorded Eddy’s testimony.

“I fought back tears as other grown men cried outwardly.”

If anyone could sympathize with Lepp, it’s Lynch, who also experienced the injustice of the so-called war on drugs, where the government puts people away for victimless crimes, destroying businesses and family relationships, and seizing assets.

“As we drove up to the penitentiary I just couldn’t stop thinking how wrong this is to put people away and to break up families for marijuana,” Lynch wrote.

“It just seemed so cruel to take Eddy from his wife, his friends, and from society.

“They were not hurting anybody; they are just living the kind of life that makes them happy, the kind of life that millions of Americans live on a daily basis.”

Lepp, 56, told the Lake County News that a 10-year minimum is a "friggin’ life sentence.”

He’s worried about his daughter, who recently was diagnosed with polyps in her throat. Her mother, Lepp’s first wife, died from throat cancer after similar polyps were found.

“I’m just scared to death, she’s barely in her 30s,” the News quoted Lepp.

His new wife, Linda, reported the Lake County paper, will remain on their Upper Lake property, where no medical marijuana garden has been grown since 2004.

Meanwhile, friends and family bade farewell in a tearful departure before federal guards took Lepp away and told everyone to leave. §

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Local police need to adapt to state law

Last Sunday, the Orange County Register printed a "reader rebuttal" from Garden Grove police chief Joseph M. Polisar defending the department's refusal to return medical marijuana to patient Felix Kha.

Polisar argues that Kha failed to produce a note from his doctor when police confiscated his medicine. Kha later presented the note during a court apperance. The district attorney confirmed its legitmacy and the drug charges were dropped.

"Kha then brought a motion requesting that the marijuana be returned," Polisar writes. "The district attorney opposed the motion, but the court ordered the marijuana returned."

The ensuing battle cost the city nearly $250,000.

Polisar states that "federal law makes the possession, use or distribution of any amount of marijuana illegal," setting up the quandary he faced as chief in returning Kha's medicine.

First, he says, "the department was very concerned about being put in a position of having to violate federal drug laws, or even appear to be complicit in a violation of federal law, by returning the marijuana."

Second, he continues, "the department was concerned about the conflict created between state and federal law."

The city's decision, of course, turned out to be ill advised.

The case is similar to one that occurred several years ago in San Luis Obispo when police refused to return medical marijuana belonging to Donovan No Runner. The department argued against giving the medicine back to No Runner on the same grounds: that distribution of controlled substances violates federal law.

A superior court judge, however, ordered the city to return No Runner's herb.

The city council had proposed fighting the court decision to hand over No Runner's bag of green, confiscated during a routine traffic stop.

Instead, that city wisely chose against fighting the court's ruling: "The city is an agency of the state," explained then Interim City Attorney Gil Trujillo, "and we're following state law and a court order."

The city was also facing huge deficits at the time and could ill-afford to wage a court battle that it was likely to lose.

No Runner's attorney, Lou Koory, said: "We're just happy that common sense prevailed."

Americans For Safe Access, which represented Kha in his battle with Garden Grove, points out that seizures of this sort are not uncommon, despite California's clear guidelines on the use of medical marijuana.

The organization notes that it has compiled reports from "nearly eight hundred patient encounters with local or state police during a period of more than two years. These reports show a glaring trend: more than 90 percent of all encounters result in medicine seizure by police regardless of any probable cause."

Additionally, ASA adds, "seizure of medical marijuana from qualified patients and primary caregivers has taken place in 53 of California's 58 counties. These violations of state law occur in both urban and rural locales, in the north as well as the south, and by both city and county law enforcement."

The court's ruling in Kha's case, ASA argues, should help departments throughout California revise their policies regarding the seizure and return of medical marijuana. It is hoped that these policies will be adjusted to reflect community values and standards in which medical marijuana is legal, and to cease harassing patients. §