A man who claims he was growing marijuana for medicinal purposes was sentenced Wednesday to 3.5 years in prison.
William Larry Hess, 44, appeared in front of Gila County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Cahill and requested the judge abandon his earlier guilty plea. Hess said he felt pressured to take the plea bargain at the time and was told the jury would not be able to hear evidence pertaining to his possession of a state-issued medical marijuana patient card. He was also advised prior to his plea that if he didn't take the deal he could receive 23 years in prison if found guilty.
"I felt like I was being threatened," Hess said. "I didn't know what to do."
Hess was represented by attorney Ryan W. Cummings of Tucson and previously agreed to a stipulated term of 3.5 years in prison on a charge of production of marijuana – a class-3 felony. He also agreed to a stipulated concurrent term of one year in prison for possession of drug paraphernalia – a class-6 felony – and a probation tail of three years on an unrelated charge of possession of a dangerous drug (crystal methamphetamine) – a class-4 felony.
The charges against Hess that resulted in his prison sentence were regarding a drug task force raid on his residence July 12, 2011. At the time of the raid, Hess had applied for a medical marijuana card but did not receive it until five days afterward, according to his statements in court. Officers from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Graham County Sheriff's Office and the Safford Police Depart-ment confiscated 51 plants from Hess' residence during the raid.
Hess' mother, Charlene Harris, 65, spoke in his defense during the sentencing. Harris, who also has a medical marijuana card, said they were attempting to be in compliance with the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. She explained the large number of plants by saying they were immature and hadn't been sexed yet. Only female plants are used to produce medical marijuana.
Also present in the courtroom were two DPS detectives who were poised to take Hess into custody if he was not remanded to the sheriff's office.
]Prior to his sentencing, a warrant was issued for Hess' arrest regarding a second DPS-led raid on his residence Aug. 14.
During that raid, authorities confiscated 24 mature plants and about two pounds of usable cannabis buds, according to DPS detective Lance Shupe. Harris rejected Shupe's estimate of the amount of usable cannabis because the buds were still on the plants and hadn't been cured yet. In order for one to smoke the cannabis, the buds must go through a curing process that includes hanging them to dry for a period of time and placing them in sealed glass bottles for up to a month, according to Harris.
According to the AMMA, patients are only allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable cannabis every two weeks.
Additionally, while patients who live more than 25 miles from a state-approved dispensary are allowed to grow up to 12 plants at a time, they must grow their own medication in a secure, enclosed facility.
Since no dispensaries have yet opened, every medical marijuana patient can be approved to cultivate.
Outside cultivation, as was the case at Hess' home, must be enclosed by a 10-foot-high concrete, stone or metal wall and include a 1-inch-thick metal gate, according to the AMMA rules. Detective Shupe said Hess' rock/metal wall reached a maximum height of only 8 feet and was not compliant with the regulations.
Harris said the wall was 9.5 feet and complained that the law was unduly restrictive since residences in Graham County are not allowed to have a wall taller than 7 feet.
Judge Cahill rejected Hess' request to abandon his earlier guilty plea and sentenced him to the recommended 3.5 years in prison, along with three years of standard probation upon his release. Hess was also ordered to pay $1,520 in fines and fees.
Hess' attorney, Cummings, said the result was what he expected.
"The judge did what he did," Cummings told the Courier. "He followed the plea agreement, so that's about all we can ask for."
Judge Cahill advised Hess to make sure he understood the medical marijuana law upon his release so he and his family can be in compliance and be able to use the plant in accordance with the state of Arizona's laws.
Possession of cannabis is still prohibited by the federal government, and the Drug Enforcement Agency has it listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with no currently accepted medical use despite 17 states having approved it as medicine.
Hess was remanded into the custody of the Graham County Sheriff's Office and was taken to jail.
He still faces possible additional production of marijuana charges regarding the second raid.