Constance Emerson Crooker
SAN FRANCISCO -- At your next cannabis political event, if you see a guitar player in a tie-dyed shirt with graying curls who's singing pot songs, that could be Oakland lawyer Bill Panzer.
His recent wedding resembled a Grateful Dead concert, complete with psychedelic posters as invitations and Jerry Garcia's band for entertainment. Panzer clearly relishes his professional role as gadfly on the butt of authority.
With 15 years experience defending drug cases in California and federal courts, Panzer has racked up many impressive victories, including several high-profile medical-marijuana cases, and has a well-earned reputation for hard work. Last April, he received the Al Horn award from NORML's legal committee.
He does almost exclusively drug defense work, and some police-misconduct cases. 80% of his drug cases involve marijuana, mostly medical. "I don't make the money some lawyers do," Panzer says. "I do a lot of pro bono and reduced-fee work."
In defending medical-marijuana grower Ken Hayes, he called San Francisco's top prosecutor, Terence Hallinan, as a defense witness. Hallinan had advised Hayes that it was better under Prop 215 to grow for the patients of his care organization than to buy medicine on the black market. The jury found him not guilty on all counts after deliberating "only 4 hours and 20 minutes," Panzer says proudly.
He also represented defendants in "Operation Greenfire," in which police had targeted shoppers at a Sacramento grow store. While most lawyers had their clients cut deals, Panzer dug deep and unearthed probable police and prosecutorial misconduct.
During the annual NORML conference in San Francisco last April, the crowd laughed, cheered and whistled when Panzer ridiculed the cops' skewed view of cannabis.
One cop, assigned to destroy thousands of marijuana plants, claimed this made him an expert on marijuana's botany. "This is like saying if you rob enough banks, you qualify as an accountant," Panzer quipped.
He sneered at a favorite cop ploy. If they find money, scales and baggies, they say that proves you're a drug dealer. If they don't, they say that proves you're a smart drug dealer.
Whereas many lawyers use conferences as mini-vacations, during the NORML conference, Panzer's hotel room was strewn with legal briefs and motions in pending cases. As he talked about his work, his sharp mind jumped from detail to detail in case after case, never missing a beat.
His success has irked prosecutors--to the point where one wrote "Panzer" on a human profile at her favorite firing range. He smiles and says he takes this "as a compliment."
What motivates him? Panzer says he wants a line from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington engraved on his tombstone; "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for." He believes in what he calls, "the spirit of America."
"The whole idea is individual freedom," he says.