The question in the case of Matthew Chapman comes down to this: How much marijuana can a man smoke in 60 days? Or, more to the point, how much does a man need to smoke to control his pain?

In December 2007, the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office served a search warrant on Chapman’s Castle Rock home and found 146 marijuana plants growing in

his shop, according to a sheriff’s office report. Chapman, 44, was charged with manufacturing marijuana.

During his trial next month, Chapman is expected to argue that the marijuana was for his own medical use, not distribution. In April 2006, his doctor authorized him under the state’s medical marijuana law to smoke marijuana to relieve chronic pain from a neck injury.

At the time of Chapman’s arrest, the state had established only a vague standard for how much marijuana a patient can have at any one time. The law, adopted by voters in 1998, says a user may “possess no more marijuana than is necessary for the patient’s personal medial use, not exceeding the amount necessary for a 60-day supply.”

The state later clarified that a medical marijuana patient can possess no more than 24 ounces of smokeable pot and 15 plants at one time. The newer standard, which went into effect , does not apply to Chapman because it was adopted after his arrest.

But even with the new standard, the law is hazy. Pot plants produce different yields. And patients will smoke varying amounts depending on their malady. The law also says patients can exceed the state limits if they can prove they need more.

“It can be very gray,” Cowlitz Count Prosecutor Sue Baur said last week.

Baur, who declined to discuss Chapman’s case specifically, estimated she has prosecuted as many as 10 cases where patients claimed a medical marijuana defense. (She said she could not recall the cases’ outcomes and said some defendants may have pleaded to lesser charges.)

She said her office pursues only what she called the “most egregious” and flagrant violations of the state’s medical marijuana standard.

Patients can’t reasonably declare: “I have a doctor’s note. I can grow four acres of marijuana,’” Baur said. They have to possess an amount that’s appropriate for their own use.

Still, Baur said her unofficial policy is to defer to the expertise of doctors who prescribe marijuana and to be “flexible” about the amount of pot authorized patients can have.

“As a prosecutor, I agree there’s a use for medical marijuana,” she said. “There are other drugs and other crimes that we need to toe really hard lines on. I don’t believe medical marijuana is one of them.”

Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C,.-based Marijuana Policy Project, said the amount of marijuana authorities seized on Chapman’s property is more than the amount needed for medical use.

“One hundred and forty six (plants) — you know, I don’t want to prejudge anything, but that sounds like a lot for one person,” Mirken said. “If somebody is using a marijuana card to cover some other sort of operation, that’s not OK.”

Mirken, whose organization wants marijuana legalized and regulated like alcohol, said Washington and California were the only two of 13 states with medical marijuana statutes that didn’t define a precise limit on the amounts patients can keep.

“The impression I get is that there has been more misery over this in Washington than there has been in most places,” Mirken said.

And even when limits are clearly set, they can be difficult to interpret. Marijuana, Mirken said, isn’t like other agricultural products. Apples are all about the same because they’ve been raised for years under controlled conditions, he said. Marijuana plants, though, produce varying levels of the chemicals patients use to treat their ailments, Mirken said.

“You don’t have that standard with marijuana at this point.”

Last year the Legislature clarified how much pot a patient can have, defining a 60-day supply as 15 plants or 24 ounces. But there are still ambiguities. A patient may exceed those standards if he or she can prove a medical need, according to the state Health Department.

Chapman’s attorney, Thad Scudder, declined to discuss the case. But in a court hearing in July, he argued that there were no well-defined limits on how much marijuana his client could possess for personal use.

“He was in a situation where he didn’t have any guidelines,” Scudder said.

Deputies came to Chapman’s house in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 2007, to find his then-19-year-old son, who was suspected of a firearms violation.

While checking a pathway on the side of a shop at the family’s Barba Road property, a deputy noticed light coming from beneath the shop’s door, according to a sheriff’s office report. Deputies also smelled marijuana and could hear running fans, a common way to ventilate marijuana grows, the report said. The deputies asked Matthew Chapman to open the door, but he refused. They returned just after 8 a.m. with a search warrant.

Authorities found 146 marijuana plants “in various stages of growth,” grow lights and clippings from pot plants in four different rooms of the shop building, the report said. Another sheriff’s office report said 92 of the plants were “small.” A photo taken by the sheriff’s office shows two trays containing multiple pot plants, each no bigger than a few inches tall.

Chapman’s trial has been scheduled for Nov. 9.

Scudder said in court documents that Chapman showed his medical marijuana authorization to deputies before they discovered any pot on his property. But the deputies, Scudder said, questioned whether the documentation was authentic.

Prosecutors say Chapman altered the expiration date on a medical marijuana document before he showed it to the deputies, which is a felony. Chapman’s doctor, prosecutors said, will testify at trial that Chapman’s medical marijuana authorization expired on April 27, 2007, not 2008, as it said on the paperwork Chapman presented to the sheriff’s office.

Scudder also said in court papers that he plans to introduce evidence at trial showing that on Jan. 10, 2008 — 11 days after his arrest — Chapman’s doctor authorized him to continue using pot to treat his pain.

“I believe the card my client presented amounts to valid documentation,” Scudder said during a court hearing in July.

Superior Court Judge Jim Warme concluded during the hearing that it will be up to a jury to decide if Chapman legally qualifies as a medical marijuana patient.

But Warme also wondered how the new standard should be applied. Is it 24 ounces of “dried matter” or “green matter?” he mused. “What if the police seize it and they cut it off and it weighs three pounds and a week later it’s dried out and it weighs a pound and a half?”

“Well,” responded deputy prosecutor Megan Whitmire, “that’s how it happens.”

Warme also wondered about the size of the 15 plants a patient is allowed to have. “Fifteen plants like this?” he asked, holding his fingers an inch apart, “or 15 six-foot plants?”

Scudder explained the plants could be in any stage of growth.

Warme laughed. “Boy,” the judge said. “That’s a huge difference.”

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