A sobering experience
Marijuana activists smoldering over Hurley bust
by Jesse J. Smith
To hear Joe Barton tell it, a terrible crime occurred on the morning of Friday, November 14 at his two-story house in a serene, isolated corner of West Hurley in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains.
According to Barton, armed men stormed his home, holding him and his son captive for hours before making off with thousands of dollars in cash and thousands more in valuable property. The fact that the armed men were from a county-wide anti-drug task force and their haul included 45 pounds of marijuana, hashish and marijuana-growing equipment, doesn't change the charge - armed robbery - leveled by Barton, a 62-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran and longtime marijuana legalization advocate.
Four days after the bust, Barton sat in his living room with his son and codefendant Jay Debberman, 33, beneath a bookcase holding a tome on constitutional law, a copy of Ron Paul's Revolution and a sign reading "Smoking Room." Outside the window, down a long, gently sloping hill, one can see the narrow gravel and dirt causeway across a wide swamp that vexed police investigating the case. The front door remains splintered from the battering it received at the hands of a heavily-armed raid team, but the house appeared relatively neat, at least compared to photos Barton displayed showing piles of clothing and furniture scattered around the place following the raid. He said the disorder was the result of police trashing the house. A few days before, a detective told the Daily Freeman that the two men lived in a state of squalor, a charge that clearly still rankles. "[During the raid], they said, you have marijuana, you have no rights, they called us dirty hippies," said Barton. "That's a hate crime."
Four marijuana legalization advocates crowded into Barton's living room Tuesday to listen and weigh in as he, pointedly unrepentant, described the raid and his plans to fight the charges.
"They stole my marijuana and they violated my rights," said Barton sitting in his living room with his son. "This is the government making war on the people and the Constitution does not give them the right to do that."
According to police, members of the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT) raided the house at 473 Spillway Road after receiving an anonymous tip about a "large-scale drug processing and distribution center" operating out of the two-story clapboard home where Barton and Debberman have lived for about three years. Police painted a sinister picture of a well-concealed weed farm protected by its isolated location on the far side of a swamp, as well as a system of motion detectors around the property and generators to conceal the amount of electricity used for the indoor growing operation. Police said they spent two months investigating the marijuana operation hindered by the inhospitable terrain and wide open space around the house.
400 plants confiscated
Police said they came away from the raid with 400 marijuana plants, weighing in at 45 pounds, along with nearly $30,000 in cash, hashish and hash oil, "chukka sticks," police batons, daggers and equipment used for growing and processing the herb. Police also described a DVD recording seized during the raid that depicts Barton "describing in a historical and biographical fashion the way he rose from a drug user in the 1960s to drug dealer in the present," and includes descriptions of the self-proclaimed "hippie" smuggling pot from Mexico and outlining the difficulties of laundering drug proceeds.
Barton and Debberman tell a different story. In their version, the motion sensors were a simple home security system, and had not even been installed, the three Titan generators were still in their original packaging and were intended to deal with power outages in the winter and to be used in a "free people's convention" for marijuana reform he's putting together. Twenty thousand dollars of the money seized, they said, was in donations for the conventions, while police added Debberman's coin collection to the tally of suspected drug proceeds. The men also accuse police of "stealing" everything from a display table, which Barton uses for selling homemade jewelry (and which he claims later appeared in a newspaper photo piled high with seized weed), to flashlights and a pair of night vision goggles. As for the marijuana, Barton and Debberman freely admit to growing it and in fact, take pride in the quality of their "100 percent organic, chemical free" product.
"It wasn't schwag," said Debberman, who works at the High Falls Food co-op. "It was high quality, medical grade marijuana."
The men declined to discuss the purpose of the marijuana growing operation except to say that police had found no evidence that they were selling the herb. Barton said that the 45 pounds of marijuana cited by police included wet dirt clinging to the plants when they were yanked from beds of Rubbermaid tubs in the grow rooms, as well as unsmokable leaf cuttings. When dried and processed, the operation would have yielded about eight pounds of pot, most of which Barton said he planned to smoke himself or give away for medical use. Barton said he uses the plant to treat his arthritis and post traumatic stress disorder. One of the activists at his home Tuesday, Abigail Storm of Woodstock, said she had been using marijuana donated by Barton to treat a local man suffering from terminal cancer. While major physicians groups have signed on to the idea that marijuana can ease the suffering of cancer patients, Storm claims that oil extracted from the plant can actually cure cancer.
"The man I'm taking care of needs two ounces [of marijuana extract] to be cured and what [police] have done is stopped the process," said Storm who said she is a lobbyist for a group called Citizens Against Marijuana Prohibition. "I have to get more bud donated and I have to go this week and bang on the governor's door to get him to sign an executive order to stop the eradication of marijuana because it cures cancer."
Barton said his battle for legal marijuana dates back to when he was in his 20s and saw a 16-year-old neighbor sent off to a mental hospital after his parents found pot in his bedroom. In 1971, he represented himself at trial in New Jersey on drug charges by arguing that his religious beliefs compelled him to smoke the weed. The judge didn't buy the argument and Barton spent 18 months in prison. Over the years he represented himself in two more unsuccessful legal battles, always based on his belief that marijuana is a divinely sanctioned, medically beneficial herb, not a dangerous drug. He and Debberman are planning a similar, and apparently similarly doomed, defense this time around.
"I doubt any lawyer is going to fight this case the way we want to fight it. They'll say 'We can get you a lesser charge,' but nobody wants to take on the system," said Barton, who claims that he gets by on disability payments from the Veterans Administration and money made selling jewelry. "I already know we won't get a fair trial because they leave us no way to defend ourselves. I'm 62 years old and, if they lock me up, I'll die in prison and the taxpayers are going to have to pay for my funeral."
Despite their dim prospects for success in court, medical marijuana advocates plan to lobby politicians, including U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-Hurley) and state Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) on their behalf as part of a wider push to end marijuana prohibition. Legalization advocates point to the accession of a Democratic majority in the state Senate, where a medical marijuana bill stalled last year after passing the Democrat-controlled Assembly and moves in Washington, where Hinchey sponsored an amendment to prevent federal law enforcement officials from going after medical marijuana users and sellers in states where it is legal, as evidence that their battle for medicinal pot is gaining traction. If New York's laws do change, they say, Barton and Debberman will be needless casualties of what they believe is a fruitless war on marijuana.
"We called Hinchey and we're trying to get his help," said Rob Robinson, executive director of the New York chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML). "If he would make a public statement, that would be great, we want to see where these guys support really lies."
Reached Tuesday, Hinchey spokesman Jeff Lieberson said he was unaware of any attempts by Barton and Debberman's supporters to contact the congressman. He said the lawmaker's support for medical marijuana extends only to preventing federal interference in states that already have medical marijuana laws on the books.
Cahill, who has spoken on the assembly floor about his father's use of medical marijuana while battling terminal cancer in the late 70s, said that, while he supported legislation to allow for controlled use of the drug in a medical setting, state drug laws remain in force.
"The bottom line, the reality, is that we are a society of laws and it is still illegal in New York State," said Cahill. "And as long as it is illegal people can be, and obviously are being, arrested for it."
Barton and Debberman remain free on their own recognizance after Hurley Town Justice Elizabeth Corrado turned down an Ulster County District Attorney's office request that the men, who have lived in Ulster County for 30 years, be jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail. On Wednesday, November 19 URGENT co-commander Det. Lt. Ed Brewster said that the team was still investigating the case and was looking into whether there was an opportunity to bring federal charges against the men.
"We're looking at how big their distribution network was, depending on where that leads, there could be some federal involvement based on the weight," said Brewster. "Obviously 45 pounds of marijuana is much more than personal use as far as we're concerned."
Barton and Debberman face a host of felony charges including criminal possession of marijuana, possession of a controlled substance (for the hash oil) and weapons possession which could send them to state prison for years. More immediately, the men face eviction from their rented home after, Barton said, claiming that police told his landlord they would move to seize the property if the pair was not kicked out.
"Marijuana people should not be locked up," said Barton. "We're not hurting anybody, if you want us to pay a fine, or tax it, okay, but to lock us up; that's wrong. I don't care how much you have."++
For more on the case, visit http://www.ulsterpublishing.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=article&articleID=473257