Judge gives defense time to explain marijuana use


LA PLATA -- A 43-year-old dairy farmer told a Charles County judge yesterday that the marijuana he was growing in his back yard was helping him stave off the ravages of AIDS.

Jerome E. Mensch told Judge William W. Bowling that the one or two marijuana cigarettes he began smoking about 6 p.m. each night in December 1992 stimulated his appetite and curbed the nausea that accompanied his illness from the human immunodeficiency virus.

Mr. Mensch, who has been charged with possession of and manufacturing marijuana, was trying to persuade Judge Bowling to permit him to present evidence at his jury trial that smoking marijuana is a medical necessity because of his condition. It is the first time such a defense has been tried in Maryland, according to legal experts.

Mr. Mensch, who was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987, testified the AZT he was taking was no longer working. He was losing weight and he was afraid that he was slipping into "the wasting syndrome," a potentially fatal stage of AIDS that killed several of his friends, he said.

Judge Bowling said at the end of the hearing he would give defense lawyers 10 days to submit legal memos supporting their position and the prosecution five days to respond before deciding.

Mr. Mensch was arrested Nov. 12, 1993, after sheriff's deputies arrived with a search warrant at the farm he manages about 10 miles west of La Plata. They had been tipped off by a former roommate who also had been arrested on drug charges.

Mr. Mensch showed the deputies the 10 grams of marijuana he had in his house and the four marijuana plants growing in his back yard.

During the four-hour hearing yesterday, Mr. Mensch said he never sold marijuana or drove a car after smoking it. But he admitted that he never told his doctor about the drug until after it began to help him.

Dr. Douglas Ward, Mr. Mensch's physician, testified that the marijuana helped his patient gain weight and avoid nausea. He said he was so convinced of the drug's beneficial effect that he wrote a note certifying that Mr. Mensch was HIV positive, allowing him to buy marijuana through an "Cannabis Buyers Club" for AIDS patients in Washington.

Dr. Daniel Dansack, a professor of psychiatry at the University of South Alabama, testified that marijuana has been shown to help AIDS patients and those who are HIV positive deal with the side effects of medications used to combat the virus.

But Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Devine argued that Mr. Mensch failed to try legal alternatives, such as Marinol, before turning to marijuana. Marinol contains THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The legislature has allowed AIDS patients to use THC in the form of Marinol, but not marijuana, Mr. Devine said.

Mr. Mensch would not say yesterday whether he still is using the drug. He added that he is fighting the charges to help others like him, and that psychologically it is important for him to keep fighting to stay alive.

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