Joints in the joint? Not on my watch, says the sheriff

It was a routine question that got a very unusual response.

On May 11, Chico resident Dinah Coffman was surrendering herself at Butte County Jail to serve a 22-day sentence on charges of marijuana cultivation. “Do you have anything you would like to bring into the jail?” the clerk asked.

Calmly, Coffman pulled a plastic bag full of 22 neatly rolled marijuana joints out of her purse and pushed them through the window to the surprised clerk.

“Yes, I would like to bring these,” Coffman said.

Coffman, a 41-year-old mother of five with a tendency to cry when talking about her legal troubles, admits that she knew she might have some problems getting her joints into the jail. But she seemed ready—even eager—for the fight when she arrived that morning.

Coffman has a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana. She claims that it—and nothing else—relieves her chronic stomach problems, calms her anxiousness (due to post-traumatic-stress disorder), and soothes her carpal tunnel syndrome. So she felt entitled to smoke her joints while incarcerated, calling it her medicine.

Coffman and her friends loudly denounced the prison system while they waited, and all the activity stirred up an impromptu protest in the lobby. Several other soon-to-be-inmates took the opportunity to complain about conditions in the jail, the food there, and the war on drugs in general.

“We’re all Mumia!” proclaimed one man, referring to Mumia Abu Jamal, the federal inmate-turned-activist who’s become something of an icon to progressive-leaning types.

In the end, it turned out to be the jail’s blanket no-smoking rule that kept Coffman from having her joints in jail. Her friends—Sushie Rose and Mike Rogers—tried to persuade jail officials to let them bring Coffman marijuana-laced brownies and marijuana tincture, but to no avail.

Sheriff Scott Mackenzie, who learned of the incident only after it happened, pledged that “under no circumstances” would he allow Coffman to bring marijuana into the jail.

He said that the only exception to the rule would be for a terminally ill inmate who was evaluated by the jail doctor.

“If the jail doctor specifically said, '[Marijuana] would truly help this person, and nothing else would,'” Mackenzie said, “then I would consider the doctor’s professional opinion on that.”

It was, Rogers conceded, "quite a blow" to the local medical marijuana movement. But it wasn’t as devastating as the Supreme Court’s decision just three days later, which ruled that the federal ban against the use of marijuana makes no exception for any medicinal use. While the ruling doesn’t negate Proposition 215, it does send "a message" to people who use medical marijuana, Rogers said.