Monday, March 17, 2014

A Federal Judge's Cancer Treatment Got Him Thinking About Marijuana.

It was (and is) unheard of that a sitting U.S. District Court Judge would take to the Internet to express strong opinions about government and the legal system.  Judge Richard G. Kopf, District of Nebraska, apparently needed a place to vent, so in February of 2013 a blog was born and off he went.  

His writings were a source of amusement, fascination and, in some quarters, outrage.  He called it Hercules and the umpire and banged out items long and short about reforming the courts, law schools, old trucks and his grandkids.  You get an idea of his approach by clicking on the sub-heading “RULES.”
"Rules are, well, rules. My number one rule is simple: This is my blog, and I will do with it what I want and that includes (1) trashing your comments if they annoy me or (2) barring you from the site because I think you are crazy. I have other rules, but I am not going to tell you about them because my number one rule covers the waterfront."

Any comment  from the judge about the blog remained primarily within the blog.  I requested an interview for an NET News segment for the radio and was told politely by his office staff that he felt uncomfortable talking about himself.  (There was an exception. NPR did a segment about a man Judge Kopf had sent to prison who later became a law clerk and friend of the judge’s.)

At the end of last year Judge Kopf abruptly shut it down saying the blog had “exceeded my wildest expectations. And so–it is time to kill it.”

Judge Richard Kopf
Not quite.

On March 7 Judge Kopf jump-started Hercules again with the headline “He’s alive!”  What followed was a stunning and typically frank revelation.  He’d been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (He quickly added, “For what it is worth, that is the “good” kind.”)  A few days later he followed up with a blow-by-blow description of the process he underwent to have his chemo port installed for the delivery of his treatment medications.  This included an un-nerving “selfie” (certainly a first for a judge in the federal courts) displaying his shirtless chest and fresh holes through his skin. (“This is latest in chemo-fashion. No unsightly lines dangling from your aging body.”)

The discussion which followed was even more remarkable. The judge opened up a spirited discussion about medical marijuana and the legalization of recreational pot in Colorado. It wasn’t out of the blue.  Judge Kopf’s oncologist lives in Denver and practices routinely in Lincoln. They shared “a fascinating discussion about legalizing marijuana in Colorado and some of the unintended consequences of Colorado’s idiotic (my view) pot policy.”  He then threw down a gauntlet on the keyboard of another legal blogger, Doug Berman, who writes the online column Sentencing Law and Policy.
“Could it be that the new legal regime in the Rocky Mountains is a “win-win” for both the cartels and the State of Colorado?”  
The judge, of course, was referring to drug cartels who, in Kopf’s view, might prosper from legalized cannabis. Bermen took the bait, and so did another blogger, Scott Greenfield, writing for Simple Justice.

The written exchange that followed was remarkable. Readers heard a federal judge talk frankly about the risks of lifting prohibitions on marijuana.  But he added an important qualifier. 
“I am not addressing medical marijuana. Indeed, I am glad that the Obama administration announced Friday that it was extending to the University of Arizona a waiver to study the potential medicinal benefits of marijuana. That said, if I were the King, and it was determined that there was in fact medicinal benefits to the drug, I would dictate that registered pharmacists dispense the drugs as opposed to street corner vendors.”
I won’t rehash the entire exchange, but the sparring between Judge Kopf and two writers who both disagree and respect the man is worth the read for anyone interested in quickly evolving marijuana policy.  Read it here. 

Judge Kopf has started his chemo.  Doctors also biopsied tissue for any signs of lung cancer different from his Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Like anyone dealing with cancer, he’s waiting to see what happens next.