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Kenyon: Lebanon Pot Policy a Bust

Published: 9/20/2016 11:46:34 PM
Modified: 9/20/2016 11:54:24 PM

Four months after being arrested for smoking marijuana at home, Brian Cardinale, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane, left the Lebanon courthouse on Monday a free man.

After paying a $500 fine, of course, to be deposited into the city’s coffers.

Lebanon sure knows how to treat its disabled veterans.

Cardinale, 59, is the second disabled veteran — that I’m aware of — who was arrested by Lebanon police for possessing a small amount of pot that they used for pain relief. (In a community where police average three pot busts a week, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others.)

“It’s been quite a year,” said Cardinale when we talked outside the courtroom.

In February, a fire destroyed the apartment building in Hartford where he lived. He lost nearly everything.

His longtime girlfriend, Lorraine Sevigny, contacted her landlord, Twin Pines Housing Trust, about adding Cardinale to her lease at the Village at Crafts Hill, an affordable housing complex in West Lebanon.

On May 10, before Twin Pines had completed the paperwork, Sevigny heard a knock on the door: Three Lebanon police officers wanted to enter the apartment.

They had received “drug intel” about marijuana use at the apartment complex, where Sevigny has lived for 11 years, from a source who wouldn’t give her name.

According to their report, cops said they could smell burnt marijuana when Sevigny opened the door of her first-floor apartment. Sevigny and Cardinale “admitted they smoke and gave consent” to a search, which turned up a glass jar with a small amount of weed in a kitchen drawer, the police report stated. But that was only the beginning.

Three days later, Twin Pines said it had no choice but to start eviction proceedings. The nonprofit organization’s low-interest federal housing loans come with the condition that there be a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs.

Fortunately, Ben Mortell, an attorney with the New Hampshire Legal Assistance office in Claremont, worked out a deal with Twin Pines to keep Sevigny and Cardinale in their apartment.

On Tuesday, Twin Pines Executive Director Andrew Winter said he couldn’t talk about individual tenants, but “we’re clearly in the business of housing people, not evicting them.”

Although by mid-summer Sevigny and Cardinale no longer faced losing their apartment, they still had legal worries. New Hampshire remains the only New England state not to have decriminalized possession of marijuana, which meant Sevigny and Cardinale could be saddled with criminal records. They were also looking at fines and legal fees — no small expenses when you live off a monthly Social Security disability check.

“We’ve kind of been sweating things out for a while,” said Sevigny, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash years ago that eventually forced her to stop working. (Until a few months ago, she volunteered twice a week at the Good Neighbor Health Clinic in downtown White River Junction, but had to give that up.)

Under the 2013 New Hampshire law that was finally implemented this year, it’s likely that Sevigny and Cardinale would be eligible to use medicinal marijuana, which they preferred as a benign alternative to prescription painkillers. But getting a medical marijuana license can be a lengthy process. Cardinale’s situation was further complicated because he receives his health care at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. Since federal law still doesn’t allow for the medical use of marijuana, his VA physician couldn’t prescribe it.

The couple did catch a break, however, when Paul Twomey, a prominent criminal defense attorney from southern New Hampshire, offered to help for free.

Twomey contacted Lebanon prosecutor Ben LeDuc, who was willing to reduce the charges to a violation. Cardinale and Sevigny would still have to each pay a $500 fine, but they’d avoid a criminal record.

If the $1,000 in fines had been “coming out of (the couple’s) monthly budget, I would have argued against it,” Twomey told me.

After I wrote about the case in late May, an individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, sent Listen, a Lebanon-based social service organization, a check for $1,000 to cover their potential fines.

It was probably the best that Sevigny and Cardinale could have hoped for. As long as Lebanon cops continue their war on drugs, LeDuc is in a tough spot. He’s a one-man prosecutor’s office, with more than 1,000 cases (not all drug-related) a year coming across his desk. He doesn’t have a lot of time to exercise discretion.

After taking the job last year, LeDuc made it his policy to offer first-time offenders the same deal that he gave Cardinale and Sevigny.

At least, he’s consistent.

Before Twomey made the 1½ hour drive back home to Merrimack County on Monday, we talked in the courthouse lobby about New Hampshire’s approach to marijuana.

“I wish that police in the state would have different priorities, but it’s the Legislature that is ultimately responsible for this problem,” he said.

In the upcoming months, Twomey will help draft proposed legislation to revise the state’s marijuana laws, which has become something of an annual exercise that dies in the state Senate. If lawmakers want to hear from people who have been caught up in the system, Cardinale and Sevigny told me that they’d be willing to share their story.

“We’ll do whatever we can to help,” Cardinale said.

Bad public policy makes for motivated witnesses.

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