Shedding light on his plight, James Stacy speaks to a San Diego news team about how his medical marijuana dispensary landed him on the wrong side of the law.
By Teri Figueroa | Published in North County Times
Two years ago, James Stacy operated a martial arts studio in Vista.
Then he opened a medical marijuana dispensary in the same building.
Within 10 weeks, he landed in federal jail.
Stacy fought federal criminal charges, lost, and now, with a felony drug conviction, is without a full-time job or significant income.
But along the way, he said, he found a new calling: activism.
Seated in the living room of his Vista home Wednesday for his first lengthy interview since he was sentenced in January, Stacy spoke of life after his guilty plea to federal drug charges.
He is serving a two-year term of federal probation for his admission to growing marijuana, which he used for his dispensary.
He fought the federal case as long as he could, insisting his shop was legal under state law and protected from federal prosecution by the Obama administration.
“I firmly thought the whole time that I was going to win,” said Stacy, 47.
During the year and a half that Stacy fought the charges, his supporters filled at least half the seats in a federal courtroom at each of his proceedings.
Among them was Eugene Davidovich, the director of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a national group that works to ensure safe and legal access to medical marijuana.
He called Stacy “my personal hero.”
“James deserves all the credit that the can get,” Davidovich said. “He is a champion of this fight in San Diego. Hundreds of people look up to him because James stood up to the federal government as long as he did.”
Stacy now fights for the rights of patients to have access to marijuana prescribed as medicine for ailments, including cancer.
“I feel an obligation to help people so that no one else has to go through what I went through,” Stacy said.
One of 14 shops raided
Stacy’s now-defunct medical marijuana store on South Santa Fe Avenue was one of 14 San Diego County shops raided by local and federal authorities on Sept. 9, 2009.
Stacy opened the shop just 10 weeks before the raid, with a stock of $300 worth of medical marijuana.
Before that time, Stacy was a medical marijuana user who had to drive to Los Angeles to get his medicine, which he said he used for various bone, joint and muscle problems from years of teaching martial arts.
“I (opened the shop) to try to help people,” Stacy said. “I thought I would follow the rules and do a good job.”
He said he feared theft far more than the police because he felt comfortable that he was following all state laws, and therefore was exempt from federal prosecution.
When the shop was raided, authorities turned up eight dozen marijuana plants and a semiautomatic gun —- a weapon, Stacy argued in court, that he used solely for self-defense training for the martial arts classes he taught in a different part of the building.
Although authorities arrested 32 people across the county that day, only two were immediately charged —- Stacy and Joseph Nunes, who ran a dispensary in San Diego.
The cases of both men landed in federal court. County prosecutors eventually brought charges against a third shop owner.
Nunes pleaded guilty at an early stage of his case, but Stacy fought his charges until his case nearly reached trial.
No other charges were filed from the raids, and there have been no countywide sweeps since.
Probation, no jail
Legal in California since 1996, the use of marijuana as medicine has long been a contentious issue in San Diego County. Local governments, including those in North County, have fought state laws that approve and regulate the use of the drug for medicinal reasons, as well as the dispensaries that provide it.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law in most instances.
But, through his attorney, Stacy argued that prosecuting him in federal court ran counter to U.S. policy.
They pointed to statements from Obama administration officials suggesting that federal prosecutors refrain from going after medical marijuana operations that are following state laws.
U.S. District Court Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz rejected that argument.
He also barred Stacy from presenting the jury with philosophical arguments, including whether marijuana should be legal, whether it has legitimate medicinal value and whether providing it to patients was humanitarian.
In October, Stacy gave up the court fight and pleaded guilty to a single charge.
Prosecutors dropped the other eight charges.
The martial arts instructor had been looking at up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted of manufacturing or cultivating marijuana.
Shown a good plea deal —- probation —- Stacy threw in the towel.
He was sentenced to two years of probation.
‘We are going to be remembered’
Stacy has struggled to find a job, saying that potential employers show him the door when he reveals the felony drug conviction.
The building that housed the dispensary also housed Stacy’s martial arts studio, but he lost it last summer after he lost customers —- a casualty of the economy, he said.
He now has a $50-a-week gig teaching martial arts classes at a Vista gym.
His wife is keeping the couple financially afloat.
He speaks of a sense of betrayal by President Barack Obama, who he believes did not carry through with statements that his administration would not go after medical marijuana, and medical marijuana laws he said are “hypocrisy.”
“BP destroyed the Gulf (of Mexico) and none of them went to jail,” Stacy said.
Stacy said he has not had marijuana in any form since his arrest; as a condition of his bail, and then of his probation, he was barred from doing so.
Even though he had a doctor’s recommendation allowing him to use medical marijuana, he let it lapse.
Now, he said, “I suffer.”
He takes nothing because be believes most painkillers are bad for him.
He spends his days looking for work, putting together his planned nonprofit, dubbed Hemp for Jobs, and fighting for the rights of medical marijuana patients to have safe access to their medicine.
He also speaks at meetings of local government bodies to argue against bans on medical marijuana dispensaries.
“He really has been instrumental in this fight,” Davidovich said of Stacy.
“We are going to be remembered,” Stacy said, “as the ones who changed the law; who changed the world.”