In what may be the first case of its kind in state history, a Healdsburg man whose marijuana was stolen in a home-invasion robbery will be allowed to seek restitution from the defendants.
"It certainly does represent a milestone," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland advocacy group for medical marijuana users. "I appreciate the court recognizing this as a lawful substance. Victims should be compensated."
But just how much Michael Steffens' weed is worth will be open to debate.
His lawyer is expected to ask for $18,000 for six pounds taken from his West Dry Creek Road home by four men dressed as police officers who barged in, beat him and bound him with a telephone cord.
Steffens, a 51-year-old carpenter who was smoking pot under a doctor's recommendation to treat neck pain, will likely testify at an upcoming Feb. 14 hearing.
The defendants are expected to challenge his request for restitution on grounds that he was not complying with medical marijuana laws, his lawyer, Steve Spiegelman, said Monday. Whether lawyers for the defendants will get to cross-examine him is unclear.
"We want to be careful the victim is not re-victimized," Spiegelman said.
Other people have been compensated for medical marijuana that was seized and destroyed by authorities, Hermes said. But never have the courts ordered criminal defendants to repay a victim for stolen pot, he said.
"This is a new thing," Hermes said.
Spiegelman said victims are often afraid to come forward for fear of being prosecuted themselves.
"People have been afraid to step up to the plate," he said.
While pot remains illegal under federal law, California voters approved the medical use of marijuana in 1996. Users must obtain a doctor's recommendation and comply with county laws that set limits on the amount of marijuana they can possess.
Judge Gary Medvigy on Friday said he would consider awarding restitution to Steffens if he possessed the pot under state and local regulations. In general, any person with a doctor's note can have up to three pounds. Steffens and another adult family member had six.
"I'm sure he met the guidelines," Spiegelman said.
Still unresolved is whether Steffens can qualify for money from the state to pay for a post-traumatic stress disorder he said he suffered from the robbery. Spiegelman said the district attorney's victim-assistance division has turned him down because the case involves marijuana.
The district attorney's office denied it had a blanket policy to withhold benefits from victims in marijuana cases, but said there are other reasons a person can be deemed ineligible, including if they had past convictions or in some way contributed to the crime.
The judge has no authority to intervene in that regard, Spiegelman said.
Steffens has been trying to get help since the October 2009 robbery. As he lay tied up on the floor, the four men loaded a U-Haul trailer with his possessions, including weed that was drying in his barn or a garage.
Steffens broke free as soon as they left and called 911. Three of the men were arrested within hours. All four were eventually charged, convicted and sent to prison or jail.
Three of them remain in prison, serving multi-year terms.