Bad news for Joel Castle
Med-pot advocate found guilty of possession and sale of marijuana—he argues his attorney didn’t have his back
Joel Castle is living proof that one bad decision—no matter how good the intentions—can change your life forever.
For Castle, who headed up the Chico Cannabis Club, that bad decision was to trade marijuana for a guitar offered on Craigslist. His intentions might have been good—he insists he was trying to help a man get his medicine—but he’ll likely spend the next few years in prison, having been found guilty of two felonies in connection with that trade.
For those unfamiliar with Castle, he has had quite a presence in Chico’s medical-cannabis community for going on the past decade. Eight years ago, he opened up the city’s first medi-pot collective, the Chico Cannabis Club. He’s been an outspoken advocate of the herb’s medicinal properties—and a proponent for safe access to it.
But in late 2009, Castle, like many residents of Butte County and the country, came on hard times. He moved into a motel, leaving his lush garden and downtown home behind. He had plans, he’s said, to create a board of directors for his 70-member collective, rather than running it alone.
Then came January 2010, and with it the events that would prove a thorn in Castle’s side for at least another year and a half, probably longer. He saw a guitar for sale on Craigslist, and he made the seller an offer. In the late afternoon of Jan. 15, in a parking lot near his Park Avenue motel, he handed a paper bag filled with 2 ounces of marijuana to Chico police Det. Kevin Hass in exchange for a guitar. He was promptly arrested.
“I never go outside the medical-cannabis community,” he explained to the jury during trial last week. He had taken the stand, waiving his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, as the only witness to speak on his behalf. “He begged me, said he had an appointment with a doctor to get a recommendation the next day—he pulled on my heartstrings,” Castle said of the man on the other end of the e-mail conversation.
Hass answered under oath that he never told Castle he had a recommendation or that he would be getting one. The man selling the guitar had forwarded Castle’s response to the Chico Police Department, but it was unclear exactly what was said before Hass took over communication. And the informant wasn’t called to the stand, much to the chagrin of Castle, who told the jury in his half-hour monologue that he had tried to fire his lawyer—public defender Larry Willis—three times.
After a day and a half of trial, and testimony from two police witnesses in addition to Castle, the jury found him guilty of two felonies. First, he was charged with possession of marijuana for sale—the officers testified that they found 5 1/2 pounds of the herb in his motel room, along with a loaded handgun and a ledger indicating future trades for other items. Second, he was charged with sale of marijuana.
Both charges included an enhancement that they’d been done with a firearm, though halfway through day two Judge Robert Glusman threw out one of them due to the fact that the gun Castle owned had been in his locked room when the transaction took place. The jury couldn’t decide on the other, so ultimately both were dismissed. The two felonies carry a maximum sentence of four years, eight months behind bars.
Castle has been wearing a Butte County Jail jumpsuit for the better part of the past year. Since his arrest last January and subsequent judicial requirement not to smoke pot while awaiting trial, he’s staged several protests against what he deems are violations of his Proposition 215 rights. He was arrested twice last summer for violating the terms of his release by smoking pot in City Plaza. And twice he remanded himself into jail custody.
During an interview at the jail in March of this year, Castle explained that he was fighting for not just his rights, but also for the rights of others to have safe access to a medicine that works for them. He expressed concern that his lawyer wasn’t on his side, that Willis wouldn’t bring up the issues—like his belief that he was entrapped when he made the trade—that he believed were paramount to his case.
Castle sent several letters from jail to this reporter over the past few months explaining his displeasure with his defense, even including copies of a letter written by Willis dated Feb. 7 that says, in effect, that he should have taken a plea deal because he’s guilty.
“You have a couple of options,” Willis writes. “You can put this behind you, get treatment and live out a reasonable life. … Or, you can refuse to recognize where the power is, continue to flaunt your use of marijuana, in the unlikely event that you are given probation after trial and die miserably in prison in total anonymity…. Once you are gone you will be yesterday’s news and another anonymous number in the gulag.”
In the courtroom, Castle’s fears were realized. Willis declined to give an opening statement, which is his right. Deputy District Attorney Jeff Greeson then took the opportunity to paint a picture of Castle as a drug dealer, plain and simple. Hass’ descriptions of the trade—“We shook hands and he said, ‘I think you’re going to like this’”—and the evidence found in Castle’s hotel room furthered that depiction.
Willis did ask pertinent questions to cast doubt on whether the pot in the hotel room—5 1/2 pounds packaged in a variety of jars and bags—was for sale or for legitimate medical use. He submitted Castle’s valid recommendation as evidence.
“When people have marijuana for personal use, how do they package it?” he asked Det. Neil Simpson, who arrested Castle and assisted in searching his room. “Do they use Mason jars? Ziplock bags? Paper bags?”
“Yes,” Simpson replied.
But much of his questioning of Hass and Simpson involved scientific explanations of marijuana. The Police Department, despite labeling on each bag containing marijuana that a portion had been removed for chemical testing, had not in fact tested the substance to verify it was marijuana, he argued. Therefore, he moved for a dismissal based on the fact that the people had not proven that it was pot that was traded, or even pot that was in Castle’s hotel room.
But the point seemed moot, and Glusman explained more than once that the two detectives who encounter marijuana on a regular basis were to be considered experts on the subject.
When it came time for Castle to decide to take the stand, Willis made his objections known.
“Most of what he wants to say I believe will be detrimental to the case,” he told Glusman. “But the law doesn’t give me any control.”
Castle gave a sometimes redundant speech on the stand, during which he called Willis “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and explained his affiliation with the Chico Cannabis Club and the medical-marijuana community. Since he was the only person to testify on his behalf, this was the first the jury heard of his side of what had happened that day, and his reasons for having so much marijuana in his hotel room.
“I had to tell you in 15 minutes what he [my attorney] could have told you with witnesses,” Castle told the jury.
In the end, however, after Greeson gave his closing arguments, Willis tapped the final nails into Castle’s proverbial coffin. “It’s his medicine, he needs it—at least he thinks he needs it,” he said. “One of the few things Mr. Castle said on the stand that you’ll find credible is that the marijuana was for his own personal use.”
Contacted after trial, Willis said he wouldn’t comment on courtroom tactics, but he did say he went into it thinking he had a case, but “I didn’t have as good a case as he thought I did.”
In a note sent from jail after trial was over, Castle writes, “I want all of the public to know I was acting out of compassion and mercy. Guitars do not pay the rent!
“Not only will I appeal but I will have another attorney that will address the issues and dig deeper.”
It’s safe to assume we haven’t heard the last from Joel Castle.