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Jury convicts marijuana activist

Published 11:16am Thursday, April 22, 2010

Niles Daily Star

CASSOPOLIS – After nearly six hours of testimony in his case and with the jury deliberating Wednesday, Sylvester Vanderbutts said he felt extremely confident.

He even predicted the jury would acquit him within a half-hour.

But after about an hour and a half of jury deliberation at Cass County Circuit Court, the Howard Township resident and Michigan medical marijuana card holder was shocked he was found guilty on all four counts – possession with intent to deliver, manufacturing marijuana, possession of marijuana and maintaining a drug house.

He was so surprised he collapsed moments after the jury had left the courtroom, landing on a chair. He remained conscious but was sweating heavily while hunched over on the ground when an ambulance was called to the scene.

This all began when police raided Vanderbutts’ home on Sept. 14 of last year and reportedly found 47 marijuana plants and more than 17 ounces of loose marijuana.

Three officers who were at the scene took the stand Wednesday and alleged that they heard Vanderbutts, who is a cancer patient, say he was supplying four other sick people with the drug.

Officer Adam DeBoer of the South Haven City Police Department, who led the raid, said the evidence at the scene gave him reason to believe Vanderbutts was supplying or selling to others.

“The first thing I noticed was the fairly large quantities – not typical user quantities,” DeBoer said. “They were packaged individually, close to one ounce each.”

He also testified that $2,750 in cash was found and seized from a safe underneath his bed, and a journal chronicling his marijuana grow was near his bed. The journal revealed he began growing in the summer of 2008, months before the Michigan Medicinal Marijuana Act took effect.

DeBoer calculated that if each plant found in Vanderbutts’ home yielded 1.125 ounces of marijuana that over the course of the year he would be producing more than 350 ounces. And according to Vanderbutts’ testimony that he smoked one to one and a half ounces per week, he would be producing 294 ounces more than he would need in a year.

Vanderbutts’ attorney Matthew Abel would refute that in cross examining DeBoer by asking him to do the calculations using Vanderbutts’ estimation that one of his plants yields 0.75 ounces of pot under two harvests per year, which works out to be 70.5 ounces in a year.

Abel would also point to language in the Michigan Medical Marijuana act that allows cardholders to tend as many plants as needed “to ensure uninterrupted availability” to treat the sickness.

Vanderbutts was the last person to take the stand.

“When I started chemotherapy, I had stage four cancer,” he testified. “I had tumors on my pancreas and spleen.”

He also said he is a type 1 diabetic and suffers from stomach ulcers that don’t allow him to take pills.

“If I take cannabis, it removes the pain,” he said. “I don’t sell drugs. Everything is for my own consumption.”

He also strongly denied telling officers the day of the raid that he was supplying four others. He said that the pot was put in separate baggies and into freezer bags and stored in the freezer for his own later use. Vanderbutts also claimed he had 42 plants at his home, not the 47 police alleged.

In March, Vanderbutts had testified before the court that he was manufacturing enough pot to become a caregiver if the opportunity arose, which probably did not help his case.
In his closing arguments, Prosecuting Attorney Riab Rizk pointed out that no physician had taken the stand to testify that Vanderbutts needed that many plants to keep a continual supply for his treatment.

He also argued that Vanderbutts was trying to convince the jury that he could legally possess the marijuana, while also sweeping under the rug the fact he had been growing it months before the law took effect.

“With one hand he wants you to believe he is legitimate,” Rizk told the jury. “On the other hand, he wants to say the card doesn’t matter.”

In Abel’s closing arguments, he told the jury there was no evidence that he actually sold or supplied anyone with the drug.

He also defended Vanderbutts keeping more than 40 plants at his home.

“When you have cancer and marijuana is your medicine, you don’t want to run out,” he said. “It’s not something you can go to the pharmacy and get.”

When the trial was over and with the ambulance arriving at the scene, the counsel reacted to the verdict.

Rizk said the prosecution was “pleased” with the verdict.

“Marijuana is still an illegal drug with very few exceptions, and the verdict here shows you can’t try to get an exception with a violation of the law,” he said.

Abel was frustrated with the fact the jury entered deliberations late in the day.

“I’m concerned they were in a big hurry to get home, and they didn’t take as much time,” he said.

He also feels there are “several appealable issues” in the case, including what he said were “confusing” jury instructions from Judge Michael Dodge.

Vanderbutts will appear in court on May 21 for his sentencing.

Several supporters of Vanderbutts, including representatives from the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, attended the trial.

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