The Cannabis Caper

How a citizen's donation to NORML got routed to the DEA

Last month, Clayton Jones of Houston got his hands on a newsletter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The 54-year-old paraplegic and double amputee believes that marijuana should be legal for medicinal purposes. Finding kindred spirits at NORML, he felt moved to send a contribution to the local chapter.

He duly filled out his membership information, scribbled out a check for $10 and put it in the mail that same day. Jones was most perplexed when a package arrived from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration a week later.

He warily opened the manila envelope and found a succession of smaller envelopes, like a Russian nesting doll. The first was addressed to the DEA's Houston office, with Jones's name and address scrawled in a neat but unfamiliar hand in the space at the top left where the sender's information goes. Inside was Jones's original letter to NORML, which had been opened but still contained his membership information and check -- uncashed.

Who would feel compelled to open his private correspondence to high-profile advocates of marijuana legalization and send it off to the agency charged with smoking out users of the herb, he wondered with rising anger.

"I feel very violated," he says.

Adding fuel to Jones's anxious ruminations is the fact that the DEA has become increasingly heavy-handed in its crackdowns on the use of medical marijuana. The agency, under the guise of homeland security, recently staged a series of raids on medical marijuana cooperatives in California, where state law allows pot for the seriously ill.

Jones took the package from the DEA to a leading reform group mentioned in the NORML newsletter, the Drug Policy Forum of Texas. He and the group's executive director, Alan Robison, studied the papers like tea leaves, hoping to determine how the letter had gotten into the hands of the feds.

The first thing they determined was that Jones had incorrectly addressed his envelope. Instead of putting NORML's post office box, he had written the Drug Policy Forum's building address at 1425 Blalock Road. In addition, he failed to enter the suite number, making it all but undeliverable in a two-story building with about 20 different offices. That still didn't explain how it turned up at the DEA.

The little coupon Jones had clipped from the newsletter and scrawled his personal information on seemed to offer a clue. It so happened that on the back of that square of paper was a snippet of vague information about a planned "action" by NORML to protest a DEA policy. The newsletter gave the address of the agency's building on the West Loop.

Someone apparently wanted to tip off the federal agents about NORML's intentions. But who?

Their suspicions turned to the postal service. The neatly written envelope to the DEA had been stamped with a postage meter that appeared to be the kind used by post offices. It seemed plausible to Jones and Robison that in post-September 11 America, postal workers saw themselves on the front lines of the nation's "wars" on terrorism and drugs.

"Evidently the sneaky bugger in the post office…was trying to get Jones in trouble or make a hero out of himself," said the Drug Policy Forum's Robison, a distinguished professor of pharmacology and former department chair at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

When informed of the situation, postal officials expressed doubt that one of their employees would open a first-class letter and then reroute it to some third party, like the DEA. Doug Turner, a postal inspector in San Antonio and a regional spokesman, says such a move would violate the "security and the sanctity of the mail" and potentially constitute a felony.

"You can't just take a piece of mail and open it because you think something's wrong with it. You have to have a search warrant to do that," Turner says of postal service protocols. "If we find an employee who is doing that, we will try to prosecute him every time."

In the Jones episode, such harsh measures proved unnecessary. It turned out that a mail carrier apparently had committed an error, but one that did not rise to the level of criminality. The carrier mistakenly delivered Jones's letter to the office of a mortgage company at 1425 Blalock, rather than returning it to Jones.

It was Joe Etheredge, president of Casa Mortgage Inc., who made the decision to forward Jones's letter to the feds. Confronted in his office with the facts, Etheredge, a man with twinkling blue eyes, short gray hair and beard, thinks back for a moment and explains what happened. Yes, he remembers the errant letter that arrived with the stack of other mail that Tuesday afternoon in February. He recalls slicing open the mail with the mechanical motions of a business owner who receives piles of lien payments and other correspondence.

He doesn't look at the face of every envelope, he says, adding that he pulled the contents from Jones's envelope and eyeballed them long enough to know the letter wasn't for him.

"I had no idea that whatever was in there had anything to do with NORML… I just gave it to one of the girls in the back and said, 'Here, forward this on. It got sent to the wrong address.' "

Etheredge says his assistant forwarded the mail to the DEA because the agency's address was displayed prominently on the back of Jones's membership coupon.

"She could have just as easily sent it back to him," he concedes.

The DEA received the letter at its West Loop offices and promptly returned it to Jones.

"We're not concerned about what an organization like NORML is doing, unless they're breaking the law," says Robert Paiz, spokesman for the Houston office of the DEA. "We have enough responsibility monitoring the illicit drug traffickers who are putting the hard drugs out on the street."

Vanessa Kimbrough, a Houston postal service inspector, says the episode is a straightforward case of an "operational error" by the mail carrier who delivered Jones's letter to the wrong place. Robison of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas is satisfied with that version of events.

"It sort of takes the fun out of being in the middle of a murder mystery," he quips.

For his part, Etheredge says his conscience is clear. He was "trying to be nice" by forwarding the letter on to who he thought was the intended recipient.

"I feel no responsibility for the fact that [Jones] misaddressed the envelope," he says.

Jones concludes that his letter may indeed have fallen victim to a comedy of errors. But he is not laughing. A onetime owner of a machine shop, Jones was left paralyzed by a 1985 car wreck. In 1992, circulation problems forced the amputation of both of his legs. A longtime activist for the disabled, he lives in severe pain and finds marijuana is an effective way to ease the suffering.

"I want to see marijuana laws change. It's a very good therapeutic medicine," he says. "It isn't going to infringe on anyone else."

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