Fired-up: Benca responds to marijuana proposal stricken from ballot

The battle between Arkansas proponents of the two medical marijuana efforts that will appear on the ballot has gotten hotter since the state supreme court struck one of them—Issue 7—after a lawsuit challenging it was filed by Little Rock attorney Kara Benca, with the support of her husband, Patrick Benca, who is also an attorney.

Both Bencas say they are longtime members of NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), that they want to see marijuana legalized, and that their concerns about Issue 7 were shared by many patients who claim to need medical marijuana.

Patrick Benca said that, due to those concerns, some of these sufferers wanted to sign on as the petitioners in a lawsuit challenging Issue 7. However, fearing that the lawsuit would anger other medical-marijuana proponents, and not wanting people already in pain to face that potential reaction, the Bencas decided that Kara would file as the sole petitioner.

Patrick Benca now says that he and Kara underestimated how fierce the response to their lawsuit would become. To illustrate the intensity of the debate among legalization proponents—and to explain his and his wife’s position—he sent me the following email from an irate supporter, along with his response.

I asked permission to publish them. He agreed. I have edited both slightly for clarity.

First, the email from a supporter who knew Patrick Benca from years ago:

“Long time since we bartended together.  I never did think your wife would be SO against trying to get Medical Cannabis OFF the ballot.  I guess neither of you have experienced someone that has battled cancer.

“I have three friends that have fought. Two have passed since 2012.  I am disgusted with your decision to go after Arkansas Compassion.  Opiates are what you need to go after! People die every day on those meds, and there is NOT a single recorded death from marijuana.

“Doctors won’t get on board because they are afraid of losing their licenses and outrageous salaries. Marijuana will bring in millions of tax dollars to our state, and the positives outweigh the negatives by a long shot.

“I am pretty sure the pharmaceutical companies and/or politicians are paying you under the table to go after this ‘volunteered organization’ that spent MANY hours/months over the last two years to get signatures.  I am saddened that y’all decided to make this decision.  You two should sit down with some popcorn this weekend and watch some YouTube.  You might get educated for a change.”

The writer, who signed himself “Sincerely Pissed,” then provided links to the following videos:

Here is Patrick Benca’s response:

“As with everyone I have respect for, I always make sure that he/she gets fair shake and the benefit of the doubt. You will always get that from me. So, I am asking that you read what I have to say.

“My wife and I are for the outright legalization of marijuana. Period. That has always been our position. We began to understand this long before the opioid epidemic began getting the attention it does today. For years I have seen the faces and represented the lost souls of those addicted to opioids and other heinous drugs. I’ve seen more than you. I promise.

“So…marijuana. Here is what I have not seen in the last 16 years of my criminal defense experience:

“A client state that he killed, robbed, raped, or committed any other criminal act because of marijuana. Of course, the exception is those who engaged in transportation and delivery of this now-illegal drug. Another factor as to why legalizing Is the way to go.  I’m sure you and I can both wax on about the benefits of this truly wonderful plant.

“Medical Marijuana: I know this subject inside and out. I know the medical benefits through and through. There is not much I do not know on the subject. My wife and I have made it a passion. Our area of practice has given us opportunities to hear compelling stories. We have had a handful of clients who were veterans of our recent wars.  I know the struggles of PTSD and have seen the miracle transition that marijuana provides. It’s breathtaking.

“I lay this brief summary of a background to possibly instill in you the passion my wife and I have on this issue.

“That said, issues 6 and 7:  6 is an amendment and 7 is an initiated act. Big difference. The amendment, if passed, would make it exceedingly difficult for legislators (a majority that oppose it) to slow down its implementation come January 1.   If Issue 7 passed, the legislature would have a great amount of control and would promulgate rules to get it implemented and up and running. This is one of the reasons why more signatures are required to get the amendment on the ballot.

“In short, with Issue 6, the patients that need medical marijuana in Arkansas would have it likely far sooner than with the initiative (issue 7).  With 6, you have nearly a bullet-proof piece of law that can only be undone by voters on a ballot after its passage AND it’s in the hands of patients faster.

“Self-Grow: this is the provision that prevented the medical marijuana act to be passed in 2012. The sponsors on that act polled medical marijuana before running the petitions and getting it on the ballot. They had the numbers and it appeared that 55 to 60 percent of voters were in favor. Very solid numbers. It got on the ballot and failed at the election box. The sponsors couldn’t figure out what the problem was. So, they conducted a poll. They figured out that the failure was due to the ‘self grow’ provision. Arkansas voters were not comfortable with patients living outside the zone of a dispensary growing plants without regulation. These polls corroborated the voting percentages seen on Election Day.  It was a huge defeat for the cause.

“The sponsors went back to the drawing board. Initially, I believe both David Couch [who backed Issue 6] and and Melissa Fults [who backed Issue 7] wanted self-grow, but Couch was convinced that voters weren’t comfortable with it yet. So … baby steps. Ultimately, Couch and Fults split on the point and worked hard on advancing their respective issues.

“They are great people. Passionate in all aspects. David felt that the initiative was on the path of failing again because it included self-grow. If he was right, there would be nothing in Arkansas until another presidential cycle in 2020. There is no advocate that could let that happen. Too risky.

“We found out about the signature problem with Issue 7 about the same time others learned. It was known and a lawsuit was coming. Better it came from a medical marijuana supporter than an opponent. A lawsuit from an outright opponent of medical marijuana would have most assuredly killed both come election time.

“So, we decided to file. We had patients desperate to be the petitioner in this lawsuit because they felt, as we did, that the initiative would fail for a number of reasons, but most concerning was the self-grow aspect.   They wanted assurance they could get access to marijuana sooner rather than later.

“Also, we had doctors who know the benefits of marijuana that wanted to be the petitioner. We decided that we did not want to put the very people that were meant to benefit from all of this work at risk of public scrutiny and professional scorn.

“Kara had no problems taking the heat for this cause. She didn’t even flinch. I don’t believe she would have ever fathomed the sheer hate sent her way. The threats. Being called a cunt. Right now, she is with my children at her parents’ house because of all this.  My children had to be taken out of school. This is the thanks that she gets. And she is getting it from the very people she has had empathy for. Pretty fucked up, if you ask me. But not everyone is me, right?

“There is nobody who prays harder and thinks more about the people who would benefit from medical marijuana than Kara.   She knows more and has seen more than you and I put together.

“Timing of the lawsuit:  A lot of complaints are that voters do not get the opportunity to revisit the ballot box because they have already cast their vote. This isn’t the supreme court’s fault. The lawsuit was filed at the earliest possible moment. The rules in place and the procedures that you have to follow make it nearly impossible to get a measure removed from the ballot prior to it being printed.

“The legislature needs to change the timelines and deadlines to ensure sufficient time to challenge and, if successful, to have an issue scrubbed from the ballot. This would help ensure that voters are not disenfranchised, which is exactly how they feel right now. I understand that and dig their frustration. They need to call their legislator to get the laws and rules changed.

“In sum, it is clear that many have not educated themselves as to both measures. If they had, they would know that:

  1. The amendment is the best law. It would be virtually here to stay.
  2. It was the most likely to win on Election Day.
  3. It is the best law to get patients the marijuana they need soonest (always the most important consideration).
  4. Self-grow will eventually get here.  Our hope is that marijuana is fully legal within the next eight years.

Now add in all of the other benefits you mentioned in your email to me.

“Kara and I do not deserve your or anyone else’s snarky remarks, threats, and hateful words. Your words disappoint me.”

‘Guideposts’ and a ‘razor thin’ case—Part 1

Lawyers for the WM3 outline expectations for the evidentiary hearing; the state mainly resists.

[private]Attorneys for the West Memphis Three described the case against their clients as “razor thin” in 60-plus pages of briefs that were submitted to Arkansas Circuit Judge David N. Laser’s court yesterday. The filings outlined what one called an “entire new mix of evidence” in the case, any part of which, the attorneys said, should suffice to warrant new trials for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

The Arkansas attorney general’s office filed six pages of what it called “guideposts” on how Laser should conduct the evidentiary hearing ordered last September by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The only point on which attorneys for all sides agreed was that the hearing for the three men should be held jointly. At a scheduling conference in January, Laser said this was his preference as well.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office recommended a joint hearing for “judicial economy and convenience to the parties.” It noted that, “given the scope of possible evidence to be considered, hearing dates may need to be scheduled starting this fall and will not conclude before well into the next calendar year.”

The brief by Echols bore a sharper sense of urgency. It sought one continuous hearing that they estimated could last three weeks. They said they would be ready in October—one of the months Laser said he had open. If necessary, they wrote, the issue of juror misconduct could be separated from the others “for initial handling.”

Lawyers for Baldwin and Misskelley, who filed a combined brief, said they hoped to be ready to proceed “with some hearings” by October. They estimated that the hearing’s length “could range from a few weeks” to “much longer” and that “components of the case … could take lengthy periods of time,” depending on how the judge conducts it.

While lawyers for the men in prison said they were preparing to present their case in person, McDaniel’s staff suggested that Laser allow the sides to argue three key points through rounds of written motions and responses “prior to the onset of the hearing dates.” Specifically, state attorneys asked the judge to order “adversarial briefings” with “cut-off dates” on:

  1. whether the court should permit additional DNA testing,
  2. what evidence the court should consider “relevant” to the hearing,
  3. and how it should “receive” evidence in the hearing—whether orally, through transcripts of previous proceedings, or in other ways.

In its brief yesterday, state attorneys were adamant about only the first of those three. On the issue of possible new DNA evidence, they wrote that “additional testing should not be permitted to any petitioner.” They stressed that the requests for such testing made by all three “should be denied.”

It is clear from the briefs that a battle over forensic evidence lays ahead. It is also clear that Arkansas officials have been blocking the prisoners’ efforts to obtain state information since long before the evidentiary hearing was ordered.

One exhibit submitted with Echols’ brief is a letter dated April 21, 2010, from Echols’ attorney Stephen L. Braga to Dr. Charles Kokes, Arkansas’s chief medical examiner, seeking “copies of all autopsy reports, photographs, toxicology reports, written notes (including bench notes, field investigator reports, police reports, phone logs and/or communication sheets in the Medical Examiner’s Office file(s) from May 1993 to date relating to the ME’s Office’s work on the autopsies of the victims in this case.”

A second letter from Braga to Kokes is dated Jan. 5. 2011. Noting that, “To date, I have not received any response from you,” it asks whether the medical examiner will provide access to the requested materials “voluntarily or not.”

Braga writes in the brief for Echols that, “It cannot be argued that the requested records are somehow ‘confidential and privileged’” because Arkansas law specifically states with regard to crime lab records that: “The laboratory shall disclose to a defendant or his or her attorney all evidence in the defendant’s case.”

Braga told the court that a Freedom of Information request filed on behalf of Echols’ wife, Lorri Davis, was also refused. Davis asked for “records identifying the number and dates of autopsies performed by Dr. Frank Peretti for the Arkansas State Medical Examiner’s Office” during the years 1992, 1993, and 1994. Peretti performed the autopsies of the victims in the West Memphis case. Braga asked the court to order Kokes to provide prompt access to the requested records.

Braga claims that another letter—this to Assistant Attorney General David R. Raupp—has been similarly ignored. This letter, dated Jan. 20, 2011, requested a conference call to discuss testing of additional evidence. In particular, Braga sought Raupp’s “cooperative immediate agreement” to allow testing of two ounces of “green vegetable-like material” that was found “partially digested” in the body of Stevie Branch.

Lawyers for Echols want tests “to determine exactly what the … material is.” However, Braga wrote, Raupp “has not responded” to that request. 

Next: ‘Certain forensic evidence’[/private]

Michale Graves to bring ‘angels’ and ‘the blackness’ to Little Rock

If you’re anywhere near Little Rock, come join me at Juanita’s at 8:30 on Friday, March 18 to hear—and thank—punk rocker Michale Graves. As many of you know, Graves is a longtime supporter of the WM3. He recently put together a short film entitled “The Blackness and the Forest” that told the story of his “Almost Home Campaign” to raise awareness about the case. He has collaborated with Damien Echols on several songs and will perform them at this concert.

Surviving by magick—Part 2

Damien Echols recalls his ‘horrific’ introduction to prison as having been ‘almost a blessing’

[private]Late on a Saturday afternoon, in March 1994, Damien Echols stood in a courtroom and heard himself sentenced to death. Within hours, he was delivered, cuffed and shackled, to an Arkansas prison, there to be held in “safe-keeping” until his appeals were over and his execution could be carried out. He was given a white prison uniform and the number SK—(for safe-keeping)—931.

He was 19 years old. And he was reviled—the convicted murderer, and presumed torturer, of three eight-year-old boys.

Today, Echols can still vividly describe his introduction to prison. But “safe” is not a word he uses. He recalls being in the infirmary, where all new prisoners are sent, and where an exam revealed that he was more than just frightened. His heart was skipping beats. He recalls “five or six guards standing around,” smirking and asking each other, “Did you welcome him already?”

“They literally planned on killing me,” Echols says. After he was moved to Death Row, he recalls getting beatings that left him with “nerve damage” and “pissing blood for a few days.” He recalls a guard holding a knife to his throat, and he recalls being thrown into “the hole”—an isolation cell—where he says he was “starved” and might have died had not a few inmate porters secretly slipped him food. This went on for a week, Echols says. “Then, before they let me out, I had to sign an affidavit saying they hadn’t hurt me or denied me medical care.”

Another time, a guard approached him with “a rolled-up, cut-up Coke can,” Echols says. “He asked me, ‘What do you think will happen if I cut myself with this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I guess you’ll bleed.” And he said, ‘Yeah. But I didn’t do it. You did.’” Echols took the exchange to mean that even lethal retaliation for such an “attack” would have been deemed justified.

Now, almost 17 years later, Echols sees that initial ordeal, during which he almost lost his teeth, as part of the foundation for the man he’s become in prison. “It was horrific,” he says, “but in a way, it was almost a blessing. I had to seek out ways to help me deal with what was happening to me. I needed ways to help me heal from the trauma, the stress and the abuse I’ve been through.”

Alone and injured, Echols turned to what he knew: the kindling bits of energy work that he’d discovered before his sudden infamy, the introduction to “magick” he’d gleaned from a book called “The Golden Dawn.” Echols says he found the book by Israel Regardie when he was about 12 and that he still cherishes it as the book that first exposed him to “alchemy,” “the God work,” “the principle of raising vibration”—the way of living that some adherents call “the Path of Light.”

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established in the late 1880s to explore the evolution of human consciousness through a structured experience of magic. This interest in “occultism” or “the occult sciences,” as it was called, attracted many prominent thinkers and artists of the time. The poet W.B. Yeats was among them. So, as Echols dryly notes, was “the infamous Aleister Crowley.”

Almost a century later, Crowley, an Englishman, would figure in the 1994 trials of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., when prosecutors in West Memphis, Arkansas charged that the teenagers had murdered the children as part of an “occult ritual.” At one point, when Echols was on the stand, Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis showed Echols a sheet of paper on which Echols had written several names, including that of Crowley.

When Davis asked who Crowley was, Echols said that he was a well-known writer on witchcraft. When Davis asked if Crowley was not also “a noted author in the field of satanic worship” and a writer who “believes in human sacrifice,” Echols did not disagree. Instead, he volunteered that he had never read any of Crowley’s books, and added: “I would have read them if I had saw them.”

Regardie’s book “The Golden Dawn” appeared in 1937, after the secret Order of the Golden Dawn had been largely disbanded. Today it is regarded as “an encyclopedia of practical occultism.” Regardie believed the secret order’s symbols, ceremonies and teaching served to complement the work of academic psychology, and particularly that of Carl Jung.

An introduction to the current fifth edition offers this observation: “Thinking through and fully understanding the usage of such terms as ‘occult’ or ‘magic’ apart from their historically negative or even lurid connotations is fundamental. The association of these words with ‘black’ magic or Satanism has uniformly been the result of hysteria, narcissistic theatrics, capitalization by the media, or psychosis.

“To truly explore the ‘dark arts’ (or in other words, apprehend the archetype of the shadow) through systematic ritual work demands not only extraordinary knowledge, discipline and training, but a great deal of plain hard work toward which would-be dabblers never seem inclined. For any of us to integrate our ‘darker’ side is a lifelong and necessary process, but a process which yields toward a more fullness of Self.” (Italics are from the text.)

Echols believes that, lacking any physical evidence connecting him to the murders, prosecutors used his spiritual interests—which were not the region’s norm—to win his conviction and death sentence. Ironically, he now says that without those interests and their corresponding practices, he might already be dead, and he certainly would have lost his teeth. “Everything had been taken away from me,” he says. “The only way I could survive and learn to heal myself was by traveling inside—journeying inside—and I absolutely love it.”

As a prisoner, Echols has had abundant opportunity to explore society’s “darker” or “shadow” side. He has used systematic ritual work based on the writing of Regardie—and by now, many others—to heal, to cope and to learn. For example, he says, “My son is almost the same age now as I was when I was locked up. If I thought about that all the time, I’d have gone stark raving mad.” Instead, the monkish life of solitary confinement to which he was condemned has allowed him, “in a way, time to focus on this energy work.”

Echols expects to be released, and when he is, he says, the magick he began to study long before being sent to prison will remain at the center of his life. “For the most part,” he says, “the more this case moves to the forefront for a lot of other people, the more it moves to the background for me.

“It’s so powerful. I get so excited. It’s one of those things that makes you want to do a flip, because you’re so glad you’ve got another day.”

Next—Turning lead into gold[/private]

MLK: ‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’

If you have not read (or recently re-read) Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” this holiday in his honor might be a good time to do it. King later wrote that he composed his famous letter “under somewhat constricting circumstances,” after his arrest during a civil rights demonstration.

The letter was in response to a letter from a group of local clergymen, who asked King to be patient in his efforts to end racial injustice. They also complained that he was an “outsider” causing trouble in Birmingham. To that he replied:

“… I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

I think of this in light of what so many of you have done to help end an injustice in Arkansas.  We are, as King wrote, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” As you have helped us here, you have also helped “all indirectly,” for we know that injustice such as that faced by the “brothers and sisters” for whom King fought and that experienced by the WM3 is also felt by many, many others—black, white and poor.

Here’s Dr. King’s great letter.