Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
Greenway Compassionate Relief Inc. is one of the two medical marijuana dispensaries located in Santa Cruz County. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
Greenway Compassionate Relief Inc. is one of the two medical marijuana dispensaries located in Santa Cruz County. Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.

Truth in Trials Act — H.R. 3939

Amid all the chaos of a typical early morning in Congress, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) took a bold step by introducing a bill concerning medical marijuana and state rights.

Farr believes this issue is very important to the 17th District of California, and to Santa Cruz in particular. On Oct. 27, 2009, Farr, with strong voice and stature, told Congress just how important it was.

The bill, called the Truth in Trials Act (H.R. 3939), addressed the problem of federal law overriding state law in the 13 states, including California, where medical marijuana has been legalized.

“This is a bill that deals with the inside of the courtroom,” Farr said­­­­­, expressing his hope that medical marijuana users will be able to better defend themselves in a court of law. “California should be able to tell the feds to back off.”

Regardless of the fact that doctors are able to legally prescribe medical marijuana to patients, and those patients are therefore permitted to obtain it from a licensed medical marijuana dispensary, the federal government and the Drug Enforcement Agency can arrest people on the basis of national law, no matter what the law is in the state where the offense occurred.

Farr’s bill would allow defendants to justify their actions in federal court by being able to disclose that they were, in fact, legally using medical marijuana.

As it stands now, a person can be arrested and convicted for legally using the drug in the state of California without having the opportunity to claim their innocence.

“There was a specific case of a man from Oakland named Ed Rosenthal,” Farr said. “He was distributing marijuana according to California law, but the feds busted him and his lawyer could not tell the jury that he had committed no crime in the state of California.”

He went on to say how the jury, after convicting Rosenthal, realized their mistake and tried to reverse their decision. The federal judge told them that nothing could be done.

“The jury went and held a press conference, which is very unusual,” Farr said. “In fact, it was the first time ever that a jury said, ‘Hey, we made a mistake based on what we now know.’”

Farr’s bill was inspired by this affair.

Rep. Sam Farr and the 17th District

Congressman Sam Farr has always taken bold steps in legislation to represent the dynamic and often radical views of the 17th District. Since 1993, when he first stepped onto Capitol Hill, Farr has served nine terms in Congress, only missing 3 percent of votes. His dedication does not go unnoticed by his constituents.

“He really takes the time to listen to people,” said Tony Madrigal, a member of the Santa Cruz City Council. “We have a real progressive leader representing us in Congress.”

Farr believes in listening closely to the sentiments of his constituency.

“It’s like editing a term paper with a team of people rather than just the one writer,” Farr said.

The congressman’s office receives about 100 e-mails and letters per day. Farr reads and responds to every inquiry. He also makes sure to facilitate opportunities for the public to express their concerns.

This dedication has not gone unnoticed.

“I think that Sam Farr has done a good job of getting out there and holding public forums to listen to the community,” Madrigal said.

Many of Farr’s projects in the past have been met with overwhelming enthusiasm. Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews also recognizes Farr’s support in the community.

“Throughout his many years in public service, Sam has been very much in tune with the values, needs and interests of this community,” she said. “He is accessible, listens to his constituents and takes action.”

The 17th District itself comprises all parts of San Benito and Monterey counties, and the coastal section of Santa Cruz County, including Watsonville, Capitola, and Santa Cruz.

In 2008, Sam Farr won the House of Representatives election by a landslide, garnering 73.9 percent of the general vote over his Republican opponent, Jeff Taylor, who won a mere 25.9 percent. Farr believes that this was a strong vote of confidence sent from the public, and he is committed to representing them to the best of his ability.

“My responsibility here is to represent the 17th Congressional district, and nobody else has that responsibility,” Farr said. “It’s just me.”

Farr noted the level of alertness the people in his district and in Santa Cruz have for local politics, and their overall level of involvement.

“I’m very proud to represent in a very progressive, wonderful, enlightened area of the United States,” he said. “My colleagues in Congress are jealous that their constituencies aren’t as engaged as mine are.”

Santa Cruz has always been very progressive in its stance toward medical marijuana use, being one of the first cities to approve medical marijuana in 1992 through the passage of Measure A. The initiative passed with an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote. Santa Cruz is now home to two of its very own “pot shops,” Greenway Compassionate Relief Inc. and the Santa Cruz Patients Collective.

Additionally, in 2006, illegal adult marijuana use became the “lowest law enforcement priority” in Santa Cruz City with the passage of Measure K.

Another pet issue of Farr’s is his dedication to higher education. He believes the 17th District would not be the same without its diverse schools, especially UC Santa Cruz. That’s why he felt it important to get the agroecology program started on campus and also erect a few buildings, including the Science and Engineering Library, when he was on the legislature for Santa Cruz County.

“I have a good long history with the university,” Farr said. “It’s a great school.”

A lot of students are equally supportive of Farr’s other endeavors, especially his work with legislation concerning clean oceans, universal healthcare and organic food in schools.

“I was really inspired by Sam Farr’s dedication to the environment in particular,” said third-year Matt Campbell of Oakes.

Trouble in Washington

According to the last census, the 17th District of California contains over 50 percent registered Democrats and only 24 percent registered Republicans. Despite these numbers, the rest of the country remains decisively divided over most political issues. This is why controversial bills like Farr’s Truth in Trials Act have sparked widespread debate around the issue of legalization of marijuana, especially among conservatives and the Republican Party in Congress.

Variations of the Truth in Trials Act have been introduced in the House for years — one in 2002, one in 2003, one in 2005, and finally the bill in question in October 2009. Despite the support of between two and three thousand members of Congress, all of whom have consistently backed Farr’s marijuana bills, not one of them has made it to the House floor.

“Republicans weren’t sympathetic to listening to this argument, so they would just never schedule a hearing on the bill,” Farr said.

This didn’t swing well with former UCSC student and marine biology major Nick White.

“I completely back Sam Farr on this bill, and wish more people in Congress would recognize the importance of the issue,” White said. “I think these petty partisan games should stop, and once everyone takes a deep breath we might be able to hash out some good legislation.”

Some UCSC students, however, take the opposite view.

Taylor Lee, a fourth-year from Cowell, said, “I support the Congressman, but believe there are more important issues to be focused on at this time, especially with the economy the way it is right now.”

Despite this factional and partisan setback, Farr still believes the bill was fair and unbiased. He said that there have been other marijuana bills in Congress that haven’t been able to move either.

Now that the Democrats have majority in Congress and are chairing the committees, though, Farr feels that more progressive bills will be able to make it to the floor.

He is still skeptical, however, of their passage, especially with rumors spreading among the conservative minority and moderates in Congress. Farr hopes to dispel these fears, maintaining that the bill only addresses medical marijuana used by qualified adults.

“[This bill] doesn’t prevent an arrest of someone for violating federal marijuana laws, it does not pertain to any other substance other than marijuana, and it doesn’t decriminalize or legalize marijuana,” he said. “This bill is probably as far away from that as possible.”

But because of political hype and partisan fighting, marijuana has become a touchy subject even for the most progressive of congresspersons.

“I think what you’re going to see is probably a lot of Democrats from conservative districts [who] would rather not have to vote on these issues,” Farr said.

Despite opposition, Farr hopes that representatives from the Democratic Party will vote favorably on his bill.

“That’s certainly the expectation of the people who voted for Obama and voted for a Democratic majority in Congress,” he said. “They want the Democrats to deliver.”

Congressman Farr firmly believes, however, in reaching across party lines in order to draw fair deals within Congressional legislation.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to agree with them, but you listen to them and that way you get educated and you make choices,” he said. “Lawmaking is all about choices.”