Marijuana-growing 'wild lawyer' of New York loses log cabin, land after police raid

March 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

PARKSVILLE, N.Y. -- Outside an unassuming storefront in the hamlet of South Fallsburg hangs the traditional shingle for the law offices of "Joel M. Proyect, Esq."

Several miles away, at the foot of a long, twisting driveway, there is another sign, a weathered plank with white letters that reads "L'Avocat Sauvage." Roughly translated, it means the wild lawyer.

Recently, Proyect's wild side caught up with him: The 49-year-old lawyer pleaded guilty to federal charges of growing marijuana, a felony carrying a potential sentence of five to 40 years in prison and $2 million in fines.

As part of the plea, he agreed to forfeit the 30 acres where he had grown patches of marijuana, along with his house and cabin. He also faces possible disbarment.

Over the years, folks in the close-knit, rural community of Sullivan County had come to respect the lawyer and accept the man. His downfall has not brought whispers of disgrace but rather expressions of sympathy.

Proyect, the lawyer, is a former assistant district attorney in Parksville and was the vice president of the county bar association. "He's a very intelligent guy and has a lot of compassion for human beings, including his clients -- even the quote-unquote scoundrels," said John Ferrara, a fellow lawyer. "It's a loss because he's just a fine lawyer."

Proyect, the man, is a free spirit who built a log home by hand on his 100-plus acres, and is a past president of the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Needless to say, he had a penchant for marijuana and smoked it, by his own estimate, almost every day for the last 20 years.

"Many of the judges and lawyers knew I smoked," Proyect, who is free on bail, said. "They used to tease me about it."

The federal government was not amused, however. Acting on information from a local police department, agents from the Mid-Hudson Drug Enforcement Task Force raided his property at 7 a.m. on Aug. 7. They bypassed the 15-foot gate across his driveway by flying in on Army National Guard helicopters.

The effort to smoke him out was, in Proyect's mind, excessive. "This is the U.S. government," he said, "and I'm just an ex-hippie living on top of a hill."

Initially, Proyect was charged with distributing marijuana in addition to growing it, but that was later dropped. All charges against his girlfriend were also dismissed. Proyect says he grew the plants strictly for his own consumption.

Still, he makes no excuses for having flouted the law, and says he hasn't had a puff since his arrest.

"I was grossly careless," he said. "I'm a lawyer, and it was a betrayal of the trust given to me. I had no business doing it, and I'm not going to grow pot again until it's legal."

Had he been prosecuted under state narcotics laws, the charge would have been a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year and a more likely sentence of probation. But federal penalties for the same crime are stiffer.

While the government says that Proyect was growing more than 150 plants, his lawyer will dispute that number at the May 4 sentencing in White Plains. The sentence for growing fewer than 100 plants would range from no imprisonment to 63 months.

Proyect's lawyer, Ronald E. DePetris, plans to present expert testimony on some of the finer botanical distinctions with regard to marijuana in arguing that the crop was actually smaller.

Proyect says he is terrified by the thought of going to jail. A few months wouldn't be so bad -- he could use the time constructively to learn new skills such as computers and electrical wiring. But not years.

"I haven't wasted 10 minutes of my life," he said. "I speak three foreign languages. I've built two homes. I've been to France 80 times. I've raised two beautiful daughters. We grow our own vegetables and heat everything with wood. I'm scared they're going to take it all away from me."

His neighbor, Dr. Barry J. Friedlander, a 37-year-old veterinarian, said that he felt the punishment did not fit the crime. "Growing marijuana is not like dealing cocaine or heroin," he said.

The county district attorney, Stephen F. Lungen, says that he admired Proyect's work but that no one is above the law. "You hate to see anybody get into trouble, but Joel's a lawyer. He knew the law and he knew what he was doing was wrong."

A graduate of the University of Miami and of St. John's Law School, Proyect was not always the rebellious type. In fact, in the late 1960s, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for town magistrate in Fallsburg, pledging a war on drugs and the "thrill-seeking drug experimentation" in vogue among teen-agers.

Shortly after, as a county attorney, one of his tasks was to stop the Woodstock music festival from descending on Sullivan.

"I was super-straight and really obnoxious, cheating on my wife and driving fancy German sports cars," he recalled. "The more money I spent, the more miserable I was."

He and his wife, whom he later divorced, began smoking marijuana in the early 1970s, he said, and that sent him headlong in the other direction: India, est, gurus.

Last year, he finished building a big log house made entirely of maple and cherry trees that he cut down on his property. The stones in the foundation also came from his land. "I had hoped to live here until I died," he said, showing a visitor the home that took him 10 years to create. "I hope George and Barbara like it."

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