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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Cool Madness: The Trial of Dr. Mollie Fry and Dale Schafer," by Vanessa Nelson (2008, MMA Publishing, 353 pp., $19.95 pb.)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #580)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

[Order "Cool Madness" by making a donation to and specificying "Cool Madness" as your requested membership premium.]

UC Berkeley-trained journalist Vanessa Nelson has found a niche for herself reporting on medical marijuana prosecutions in California. One can only hope it will not be a lasting niche; that the events of which she is reporting will soon be the stuff of history, a quaint reminder of what is was like to live in the bad old days.

But as the recent DEA raid on a San Francisco dispensary suggests, the era of mindless persecution by the federal government of medical marijuana patients and providers is not over yet -- despite the nice words coming from Attorney General Holder. Other California medical marijuana providers are currently serving prison terms, some are waiting to be sentenced, and some are in the midst of appeals. All of them are facing (or already enduring) harsh federal sentencing laws for the crime of trying to help their fellow sufferers.

The case of Dr. Mollie Fry and her husband, attorney Dale Schafer, is among the most outrageous. A physician residing in the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Cool (thus the title) who came to embrace the therapeutic benefits of cannabis after a bout with breast cancer, Dr. Fry became an enthusiastic advocate of the herb, recommending it for patients, and, with the help of her husband, encouraging them to grow their own (and even selling them starter kits), and trying -- not very successfully -- to grow it themselves.

Fry and Schafer had consulted with local law enforcement and thought they were safe from prosecution, but they were naïve and mistaken, as started to become evident on September 26, 2001, when their home and offices were raided by aggressive DEA agents, and a whopping 34 marijuana plants seized. [Ed: This is what federal law enforcement had time to spend on, barely two weeks after major terrorist attacks on two US cities.]

Then, as is often the case with DEA medical marijuana raids, nothing happened, as if the bust had disappeared into limbo. That is, nothing happened until the US Supreme Court came down on the side of the federal government in the Raich case in 2005. Within a matter of days, Fry and Schafer found themselves indicted and arrested on federal marijuana manufacture and distribution charges.

Oddly enough, the 34 plants seized had somehow morphed into more than 100 plants in the government's case. That makes an important difference -- the difference between a short sentence, or even probation, and a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years. And that's what Assistant US Attorney Anne Pings was determined to get when Fry and Schafer finally went to trial on August 1, 2007.

Nelson provides a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings, from the defense's selection of famed defense attorney Tony Serra and his less flamboyant but equally dogged co-counsel Laurence Lichter to the bail hearing after they were convicted. In so doing, she has crafted a gripping narrative tale more akin to a page-turning novel than a dry and dusty trial transcript.

Not only is the narrative gripping, it is also infuriating for anyone sympathetic to the medical marijuana movement or who holds to the notion that trials are about justice. With Serra and Lichter forbidden to even mention medical marijuana, as is typically the case in those federal medical marijuana trials, that the prosecution would win convictions was almost a foregone conclusion to anyone other than those medical marijuana supporters so blinded by the righteousness of their cause that they couldn't see the approaching freight train. That didn't stop the defense duo from repeatedly trying to introduce the topic, leading to rapid-fire prosecution objections, repeated sidebars, and courtroom fire-works. Still, the jury that heard the case got only the faintest hints of what it was really all about.

Fry, Schafer and family at August 2007 demonstration (courtesy
There were some real villains in this little drama, and some buffoons. (While Nelson was clearly sympathetic to the defendants, the following characterizations are mine, not hers.) Prosecutor Pings spared no tactic, no innuendo, no insinuation in trying to convince the jury that Fry and Schafer were money-hungry dope dealers, even going so far as to tell the jury they advertised their services on a rock radio station! Nor was she in the least reluctant to intimidate and threaten former employees facing their own legal problems into turning state's evidence and portraying the couple as mercenary marijuana peddlers. Actions like those may make Pings an effective prosecutor, but they also paint her as a terrible human being, willing to do whatever it takes to send some harmless people to prison.

Another villain worth noting was a Sergeant Ashworth of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department. At Fry and Schafer's request, Ashworth visited their properties repeatedly, enjoying their hospitality and assuring them they were acting within the law. But by the summer of 2001, when he got done sipping coffee with Dr. Fry he was reporting to the DEA. Even worse, Ashworth actively encouraged the couple to grow another crop that year, getting the prosecution to the magic 100 plant number. This kind of sleazy, backstabbing behavior deserves a response. In this case, it seems the appropriate response would be to vote his boss out of office and send Ashworth out to patrol the dog pound.

As for the buffoons, the sobriquet was earned by the DEA agents on the case, from the supervisor who seemed exceedingly clueless about the things he was testifying about to the DEA undercover agent who infiltrated medical marijuana meetings where no pot was smoked and worried that he was getting a contact high just from being there. In an even more unbelievable, but revealing, example of DEA buffoonery, Nelson relates the story of two agents at the trial who, upon heading to the court house parking lot to get in their car to go to lunch, saw a member of the medical marijuana community attending the trial walk toward that very same parking lot (!) and assumed they were being stalked. The spooked agents fled the scene on foot and called their supervisors for back-up, only to be laughed at and told to go back and get their vehicle.

The DEA guys may be idiots and the prosecutor may be a nasty person, but behind them was the full power of the federal government. Nelson's account is a very disturbing window into just how these villains and bozos managed to wield that power. Again, this should be a wake-up call for those who think federal medical marijuana prosecutions have anything to do with justice.

[Order "Cool Madness" by making a donation to and specificying "Cool Madness" as your requested membership premium.]

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Leslie (not verified)

Hi - Will this book be available at the Seattle Hemp Fest, which is coming up pretty soon?  If not, it should be!

Thu, 03/24/2011 - 1:12pm Permalink
Investigate NW… (not verified)

Fascistic politicians/government & their DEA goons/cops need to keep their goddamned hands off of harmless marijuana users!!!

Sat, 03/26/2011 - 8:55am Permalink

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