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March 2, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

Killing Highlights Risk Of Selling Marijuana, Even Legally

By Kirk Johnson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

DENVER -- Ken Gorman, an aging missionary of marijuana, was found murdered in his home here two weeks ago. The unsolved crime is exposing the tangled threads at the borderland of the legal and illegal drug worlds he inhabited.

Mr. Gorman, who was 60, legally provided marijuana to patients under Colorado's medical marijuana law, but he also openly preached the virtues of illegal use, and even ran for governor in the 1990s on a pro-drug platform.

In recent years, he had grown frightened as the mainstream medicine of cannabis care bumped against the unregulated and violent terrain of the illicit drug market. He had been robbed more than a dozen times in his home on Denver's west side, had recently gotten a gun and also talked of installing a steel door and gates.

"Ken was really fed up with the barrage of robberies and he told me it would never happen again," said Timothy Tipton, a friend and fellow medical marijuana supplier, who said Mr. Gorman showed him the gun about two months ago.

Some legal experts say Mr. Gorman's death could lead to a reconsideration of how medical marijuana is administered here and elsewhere. Providers are often left exposed and vulnerable because of the nation's conflicting drug laws, with marijuana use illegal under federal law but legalized for some medicinal purposes here and in 10 other states.

Since 1997, after the first medical marijuana law was passed in California, as many as 20 legal marijuana providers have been killed around the country, mostly in robberies, said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

Some in law enforcement, including Colorado's attorney general, John W. Suthers, say the Gorman killing illuminates more clearly than ever that crime and marijuana cannot be disentangled.

"Mr. Gorman showed that the law is abused and can be abused," said Nate Strauch, a spokesman for Mr. Suthers.

Many people in the medical marijuana supply system say the central risk comes down to the fact that they work in the shadows, where law enforcement officials are often either conflicted or hostile and crime is rampant.

At the Colorado Compassion Club, for instance, which opened last year as a storefront support center in Denver, the 200 marijuana patients served there go through as much as a pound of marijuana a day. The club grows as much as it can, said its founder, Thomas E. Lawrence, but must rely on buys on the illicit market for the rest, usually made by one or two caregivers who have volunteered.

Mr. Gorman's killing, legal experts say, has exposed the paradoxes and ambiguities about medical marijuana that most states have failed to grapple with.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which administers the marijuana program, is not authorized, for example, to provide information about where the 1,100 patients who are certified under the program can obtain their drugs, according to the department's Web site.

The state also does not license marijuana providers, or inspect the quality of the drug that patients obtain.

Colorado's law allows patients with certain illnesses, as well their doctors and others who provide care, the right to possess, grow and transport marijuana.

But all those things remain illegal under federal law. And a chief deputy district attorney for Denver, Greg Long, said that anyone selling drugs illegally, even if the final recipient was legally entitled to possess them, could still technically be violating state laws too -- though as a practical matter, Mr. Long said, prosecutors do not generally pursue cases in which the drug being sold is marijuana for certified medical use.

The portrait of Mr. Gorman is just as unclear. His friends say he was quixotic and selfless, a man uninterested in financial gain who tilted against the confining rules of society, especially the drug laws.

A merry prankster at a time when marijuana advocacy groups were becoming more adept at politics than protest, he had become an anachronism, acquaintances say, whose counterculture antics embarrassed and angered many people in the medical-advocacy and legal reform movements.

"I have gray hair on my head and I attribute some of it to Ken Gorman," Mr. St. Pierre of Norml said.

Some critics said Mr. Gorman was caught up in his own image as a rebel, thwarting even the rules about medical marijuana that could further the causes he espoused.

Just one week before his death, for example, the local CBS television news affiliate in Denver broadcast an investigative story in which a young station employee with a hidden camera captured Mr. Gorman happily explaining how to fake the medical card that would make a drug transaction appear legitimate.

The story prompted an uproar in medical marijuana circles, forcing Mr. Gorman to defend himself on a pro-marijuana Internet forum from attacks by people who said he had betrayed them by making medical marijuana look like a cover for old-fashioned drug-dealing.

And he had become an angry, fearful man, his friends and acquaintances said. Though he had served time in prison -- five years for a felony drug conviction in the mid-1990s -- and often seemed to scoff at the law, he had grown increasingly frustrated about being a crime victim himself.

The Denver police have revealed little about the murder investigation.

A spokesman, Sonny Jackson, said the police responded to reports of shots fired at Mr. Gorman's home around 7 p.m. on Feb. 17 and found Mr. Gorman with a gunshot wound to the chest. He died shortly thereafter.

Mr. Jackson said that there had been an incident the previous night in Mr. Gorman's home; someone had been arrested and neighbors reported shots fired. But investigators said they did not believe that incident and the slaying were connected.

Colorado's medical marijuana law, enshrined in the state's Constitution by a statewide vote in 2000, protects people from prosecution under state law. Acquiring the drug illegally, however, puts those people in very dangerous company.

Mr. Gorman, his friends say, had no intermediary. The face that was famous on television as Colorado's most ebullient marijuana advocate was the same one making the buys out on the market.

"It's dangerous to help people," said Mr. Tipton, who lives in a suburb of Denver and said he had about 45 marijuana patients. "We're out there, exposed to abuse from patients, law enforcement, robberies - -- it's a long list."

Lawyers and medical marijuana advocates in California -- which has the oldest and by far largest medical marijuana system in the nation, with about 100,000 licensed drug recipients and 200 dispensaries -- say that robberies and violence against medical distributors, a problem in the earlier days of the system, have become much less frequent because of improved security.

But many robberies also often go unreported, said Dale Gieringer, the state coordinator for the California chapter of Norml.

"It usually gets hushed up," Mr. Gieringer said.

Mr. Gorman's home, still taped off by a police ribbon, has become a kind of shrine to the subculture he celebrated.

On one night a few days after the killing, a group of more than 20 people -- young men and teenagers, mostly -- sat around a bonfire in Mr. Gorman's front yard, passing marijuana joints and beer bottles as a Tupac Shakur song blared on a car stereo.

"He was the most compassionate, kind man I knew," said a young man who identified himself as Vuddah, as thick curls of smoke shrouded the group. "We want to keep this place open so that the patients can keep coming," he added. "That's what we're going to do.

"That's what Ken would have wanted," he continued. "To us, he was a medical marijuana freedom fighter."

Dan Frosch contributed reporting.

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