NEW PORT RICHEY — The man with the long white beard went to court in a T-shirt.
"I'm a patient, not a criminal," it said. There was a marijuana leaf on it. The man, Alfred Robinson, 57, stood next to his lawyer and before Circuit Judge William Webb on Jan. 15 in a courtroom at the West Pasco Judicial Center. He was there for a hearing on a July arrest for cultivation of marijuana, after the Pasco County Sheriff's Office found two pot plants on the 5 acres where he lives in Shady Hills. There were more plants that day, Robinson said, but he missed a few when he threw the ones he had into a hastily made fire. He was tipped off, he said, by a police helicopter hovering 30 feet above the treeline at his house that day.
He admits to using marijuana. That fact is not in contention, although according to his lawyer, the means by which the Sheriff's Office found the evidence is in question. Nor is Robinson new to the world of marijuana arrests. He has had numerous ones, the first in 1979.
"Basically I'm incriminating myself," he said. "But now that I'm in trouble, I'm an outspoken advocate — a medical marijuana missionary with a mission to educate people."
Robinson said he suffers from a degenerative disc disease that causes severe pain. He was addicted to pain medication, he said, but weaned himself off it. He didn't like how the pills made him feel — bloated and lethargic — and how they're bad for his liver. The pot, he said, takes his mind off the pain.
"I don't know if the marijuana kills the pain or makes me forget the pain," he said, "but it doesn't matter whether it does. It just does."
In the courtroom that day, judge and lawyers discussed case procedure and set a date to meet in February. But just before Robinson walked away, the prosecutor approached the bench.
"I didn't know if the court was aware of the shirt the defendant was wearing," he said quietly, according to a recording of the proceedings.
The prosecutor was not identified in the audio, and the State Attorney's Office declined to comment on the case.
"Oh, I am now," the judge said, "with the back."
Defense attorney Michael Minardi said he believed Robinson had a "First Amendment right to wear a political shirt to court," but he wanted the judge to ask Robinson not to wear it again.
"I'll hold him in contempt of court now if you want," Webb replied.
Minardi ended the exchange by saying "okay," and Robinson was called back to the front of the courtroom.
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There are animals on the farm where Robinson lives. This fact is important, he said, because it shows he knows how to live off the land. He has steer, rabbits in cages, and geese that make hollow calls. It's mostly flat dirt-patched land littered with old machines.
Robinson, in that T-shirt he wore to court and jeans, sat on a bucket on a sunny day and said he suffered an injury in his youth. He was born in Pinellas County and has lived in Pasco since then. He said he dropped out of school in the 10th grade. He worked at a boatyard and tried to lift a cumbersome shelf once, but the shelf was so long he had to hold his arms out all the way and couldn't bend his legs. He hurt himself.
That was the start of his painkiller use. Later in life, he was doing high-rise work in '95, he said, and he injured his back again. In addition to the disc issues, he said he has a knee problem, one where the cartilage is gone and bone rubs on bone. The pain of then and now hold hands with his arrests. Every single charge is marijuana related. In 1984, he got a DUI coupled with a possession charge. In 1990, a possession charge came with a fleeing charge.
He doesn't really work anymore, except with the animals for the farm. He collects disability. It's his only income, he said.
He talks slowly and opens his arms wide when he's making a point. Sometimes he apologizes for losing his train of thought. He gets animated, though, when talking about his lawyer's plan.
Michael Minardi, Robinson's lawyer, filed a notice with the court in December to rely on medicinal necessity defense.
"The argument is the crime was committed out of necessity," Minardi said, "and the harm that will come to him is greater than the harm caused to society."
It simply means Robinson uses cannabis strictly for medicinal purposes. In Minardi's notice, he wrote about how Robinson was treated with "deadly opiates" for his health problems, and how he also suffers from anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and chest pains.
"Cannabis is the only medication that helps," he wrote.
Though the defense is not common, Minardi has had some success with it.
In 2011, he represented a man named Jeffrey Kennedy, who was arrested in Palm Beach after police found his marijuana garden. It was the first time the defense was used in Palm Beach, and the charges were dismissed.
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When the judge called Robinson back to the podium, a bailiff placed him in handcuffs and sat him in the jury box with the rest of the accused. The judge said he needed to get his rule book and Robinson sat and waited, but eventually, he was let go with a warning not to wear the T-shirt again.
Minardi later filed a motion to disqualify Judge Webb, citing First Amendment concerns and a fear that Robinson wouldn't get a fair trial. Webb denied the motion, Minardi said, and the issue will soon go before a court of appeal. In that appeal, Minardi plans to also raise the issue of whether Robinson's First Amendment rights were violated.
There's also the issue of how the Sheriff's Office entered Robinson's property on the day of his latest arrest. A report said the Sheriff's Office got consent. Robinson and Minardi say there's a no-trespassing sign on the property. Minardi filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the raid for this reason. If he succeeds, the charges against Robinson would essentially disappear.
If Robinson gets probation, he said, he'll have to quit smoking weed and go back to the pain pills. He said he doesn't want it to come to that.
Robinson's next day in court is in April, and whatever happens, he said, he won't wear that T-shirt there again.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jon Silman can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 869-6229.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: In a story about medical marijuana advocate Alfred Robinson, it was defense attorney Michael Minardi who argued his client had a First Amendment right to wear his pot shirt to court. In that same exchange, Circuit Judge William Webb was speaking to the defense attorney when he said he could hold Robinson in contempt of court. Minardi ended the exchange by saying "okay." The original version of this story incorrectly attributed those statements.