The Saga of Sam Diana

By Chuck Armsbury, staff writer

He was a football player and wrestler at Shadle Park High in Spokane, Washington in the early 1960s. By his senior year, the hard-fisted party animal had contracted multiple sclerosis. His malady went undiagnosed, even after paralysis claimed one half of his body. Sam did not know he had MS, nor did anyone else. Suddenly and mysteriously, he recovered.

Months into the first remission, Sam had yet to learn the name of his medical condition. His medical history didn't stop the Marine Corps from drafting Sam Diana in 1969. After 31 days of extreme physical exertion in boot camp, Sam, the once-tough-guy, wrestler, football player and Marine-in-training, couldn't walk, keep his balance, talk without a noticeable slur, eat more than a bird, or control his bowels.

The Marine Corps mustered him out and sent him home. What's a guy to do?

What Sam did was smoke some marijuana at a beer-drinking party with friends. "I saw God," said Sam during our recent interview. "Smoking it made me feel better instantly . . ."

If 'God saw Sam', the heavenly prescription for relief from severe 'spasticity' must have been marijuana. Smoking marijuana in Spokane in 1970 was a crime as it is now, but 20 years ago Sam was the only one convinced that it was helping him make it through each day.

"My friends, family and medical professionals eventually believed me," Sam explained, "but not without a long fight with some of them."

Medical benefits of marijuana are scientific fact at present, and a recommended course of treatment for the sufferers of Multiple Sclerosis. That was a road that Sam would help pave, but first, to appease loved ones and doctors, Sam tried other treatments for relief. In 1970 he was prescribed B-12 vitamins and cortisone, "with understanding that the vitamins would help the corroding myelin and the cortisone would decrease the numbness," said Sam. "The treatment proved ineffective."

Thorazine was another ineffective medication prescribed to Sam, relaxing his muscles to the point of deterioration, Four years later, Dantrolene a promising drug, left his muscle condition worse.

In early 1978 a Lioresal debilitated his physical condition further. During this decade of futile medical trials, Sam kept puffing on pot.

"I have found that under the influence of marijuana, not only are my physical functions improved, but also, I am less prone to imbibe in more damaging substances such as alcohol," Sam stated in a legal affidavit. Did I say 'legal'? Yes, Sam was arrested and tried for possession of a controlled substance in the Superior Court of the State of Washington on May 23, 1977.

Samuel Dean Diana, victim of Multiple Sclerosis, was convicted of using marijuana, but in a landmark reversal, the Washington State Court of Appeals remanded Sam's case back to Spokane for retrial. On March 4, 1981 Sam was acquitted by Spokane Judge John Lally who accepted a defense of 'medical necessity', and Sam Diana, then 32, became the first MS victim in the United States to legally earn the right to smoke 'pot' to alleviate symptoms of his disease. Sam's brother, Spokane attorney George Diana, had coordinated the country's greatest victory for medical marijuana seen yet.

Case closed, right? Just grow your 'pot' and smoke it, okay Sam? Acquitted, correct? A Superior Court Judge said Sam has a legitimate need to smoke marijuana to alleviate his MS symptoms. End of story. Until December 1997.

Led by DEA Agent Gary Landers, federal and local police swooped down on Sam in December 1997 - illegally entering his rural house on a concocted ruse, Sam was charged with manufacture and possession of marijuana. "I showed them the acquittal papers (from 1981), and they ignored that. I could tell they were on a 'fantasy trip' when I joked that a clicking pressure-switch for the (well pump) was a ticking bomb. They freaked," said Sam. "When I tried to drive my cart to the bathroom, one agent said, 'I'll draw on you'. I told him, 'Go ahead, I gotta pee anyway'."

In January 1998 Sam Diana, along with several codefendants, were brought into Spokane's U.S. District Court. If convicted of charges against him, he could go to prison for 120 years and be fined $4.5 million.

Throughout court hearings Sam sat defiantly in his electric go-cart as his 'medical necessity' defense for growing and using marijuana was litigated on a criminal level once again. For 18 years Sam could smoke pot legally; why would anyone now threaten this stricken man with 120 years behind bars?

The government's case had problems. A bankrolled, veteran informant (Mike) died of an overdose before proceedings started, and Sam's MS-friends wouldn't bend to government pressure to "squeal" on a friend. So did Sam win? Sam avoided prison, but the government won and took cash, a coin collection and the equipment it took to grow his medicine. Later the government would pay Sam for the 'grow lights' broken by clumsy police agents. The government made no serious attempt to seize Sam's real property, but he only recently completed six months home-detention. He smoked marijuana for anxiety-relief and stayed home-as usual.

What was it all about? Much ado about nothing it seems - just more wasted taxpayer dollars in the mindless drug war and another citizen robbed by the government. It was more unwanted anxiety for a struggling MS patient. Yet more importantly, the government's drug war policies were again proved inhumane and irrational by a defiant, wheelchair-bound, criminal defendant named Sam Diana who told the Court, "Go ahead. Put me in jail and see what good it does you!"