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About 15 minutes into cross-examination of the first witness in a first-of-its-kind marijuana prosecution, the government interrupted and asked for a sidebar. The problem, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan Jr., was that the defense was attempting to put a medical marijuana defense in front of the jury, in violation of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer’s pretrial ruling. Not so, said defense lawyer Robert Eye, of Irigonegaray & Associates in Topeka, Kan. The government opened the door to that line of questioning, and the defense should be allowed to tell the jury why Ed Rosenthal provided marijuana for the HARM Reduction Center in San Francisco. “What the purposes of that place are is irrelevant; it’s irrelevant,” Breyer told Eye. “I understand your view that it ought to be, but it’s not.” One sidebar, almost 10 objections and some raised voices later, the closely watched trial took its first recess of the morning. Rosenthal is the first person to be tried in the Northern District federal court who claims he grew marijuana strictly for medical purposes. The case will test a popular theory in Northern California — that the U.S. government will have a hard time getting a jury to convict anyone connected to medical marijuana, regardless of federal law. Rosenthal is something of a medical marijuana guru, having authored more than a half-dozen how-to books on growing pot. He was arrested in February 2002 by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in connection with a raid on HARM Reduction Center and was later indicted. During pretrial rulings, Breyer said Rosenthal cannot argue he grew the pot for medical purposes, since federal law supersedes California’s Proposition 215, the state’s medical marijuana initiative. “You cannot introduce that evidence to the jury,” Breyer reminded the parties Tuesday. “I’m going to ask you not to direct any further questions . . . on that subject matter.” The jurors on the case were culled from dozens, many of whom were excused because they said they favor the use of medical marijuana and could not be impartial. While the government may wish the jury to remain blind to the backdrop of the case, it is clear after initial testimony that jurors know no ordinary drug dealer is in court. Ever since jury selection began Jan. 15, the courtroom has been packed with activists, and Breyer warned the defense Friday to keep any protests outside the courtroom from being directed at jurors. After testimony concluded Tuesday, Breyer excused the jury and kept the audience in court while jurors made their way out of the building. Outside the federal building, a handful of people marched in a circle, chanting “DEA, go away.” The first witness Tuesday was 62-year-old James Halloran, Rosenthal’s “dollar-for-dollar” partner in a Mandela Parkway grow operation that supplied HARM Reduction Center. Holloran testified about the operation in connection with a plea deal. Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Halloran agreed to cooperate with the government after being charged with crimes that could have led to a triple life sentence. Instead, he will likely face less than five years in prison. Rosenthal faces a minimum of 10 years in prison. Breyer said he was impressed with the professionalism of the lawyers “with all the heat that’s been on this case.” But he warned the lawyers to keep it civil. “I’m saying that I’d like to keep it on that level.”

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