One of California's more vociferous battles over marijuana was already simmering in the upper Central Valley when an audiotape of a howling, hysterical mother went viral.
"Oh, my God! My baby! My baby! My baby!" screamed Daisy Bram, 30, as Butte County child welfare officers took custody of her newborn infant and 18-month-old toddler during a Sept. 29 marijuana raid on her family's rural house outside Oroville.
On June 11, six days after Butte County voters decide a controversial ballot challenge to restrictions on marijuana growing, Bram faces a preliminary hearing on charges of felony child abuse and misdemeanor child endangerment.
Her defenders say Bram is essentially being prosecuted for breast-feeding while using medical marijuana. They say her case dramatizes what they contend are heavy-handed policies for medical marijuana use in Butte County, where supervisors put restrictions on growing medical pot, and police and an aggressive district attorney shuttered all local marijuana dispensaries.
"The general populace is in an uproar over this," said Robert Galia, a partner in a Chico-area dispensary that closed in 2011, a year after being raided by police. "This whole thing that she endangered her kids is just a farce."
Los Angeles lawyer Michael Levinsohn, who is representing Bram free of charge, said her case and the audio that's drawing audiences from Israel to Thailand "have really garnered support and made this a righteous cause."
Bram's case is being prosecuted as Butte County residents prepare to vote next week on a measure to ban medical marijuana cultivation on properties of one-half acre or less and limit the number of plants on larger parcels. Angry marijuana advocates gathered more than 12,000 signatures to force a vote on the issue after supervisors approved the growing restrictions last year.
District Attorney Mike Ramsey makes no apologies for his contention that many people in the county are exploiting the cover of medical marijuana to illegally deal pot. Ramsey said his prosecution of Bram is consistent with his office's mission to protect drug-endangered children in this case from a home strewn with marijuana buds being harvested.
"The officers are saying that this was a place that was obviously endangering the health of these children," Ramsey said. "A mother is obviously not protecting the children from this commercial (pot-growing) operation."
Bram and her husband, Jayme Walsh, were charged with felony marijuana possession and possession for sale after officers raided their 38-plant garden and seized another 56 plants from inside their home, authorities said.
After a preliminary hearing last November, Butte Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Howell upheld the drug charges but threw out counts of felony child abuse against both parents.
Ramsey, who said the child endangerment charges were dismissed because some of his witnesses weren't available, refiled them against the mother.
Following the September raid, Bram's children were put in foster care. In her campaign to get them back, she posted an online photo of herself breast-feeding the children, toddler Thor and baby Zeus. At the time of the raid, the toddler was 18 months and the baby 28 days old.
In the police audiotape, obtained by her husband in court discovery, an officer speaks in an understated voice trying calm her. Bram shrieks: "They took my baby! How is he going to eat? He's a newborn!"
Bram said she got her children back four months later, after she gave up pot for the prescription drug Marinol, which uses synthetic ingredients to mimic the properties of marijuana.
She maintains she is being prosecuted for two reasons: She was using medical marijuana and breast-feeding her kids. Bram said she consumed pot to help with an injured hand and that her husband used it to relieve stress; they possessed the plants for personal use, she said, not sale.
"It defies logic if you think of a mother consuming cannabis and breast-feeding facing a child abuse charge," Bram said.
Ramsey said the case is about a dangerous drug environment, not breast-feeding. He said tests on hair samples from the toddler, Thor, revealed traces of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive element in pot. The baby had insufficient hair to test, he said.
Dr. Angela Rosas, chief of pediatrics at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento and a specialist in drug-endangered children, said it is common for marijuana to concentrate in breast milk.
She said mothers are urged not to use pot while nursing but that studies conflict on whether THC in breast milk is harmful. "We don't have any newborns coming in with marijuana intoxication," she said.
Rosas said she has, however, treated toddlers who were comatose after eating marijuana. She said they recovered in a day or two.
Josh Cook, a spokesman for the community group Butte Concerned Neighbors, said he had not heard of Bram's child-endangerment case. He was puzzled to learn of the saga as residents prepare to vote on Measure A to uphold or overturn local pot-growing limits.
"Some of my friends live in residential areas where neighbors are growing 50 plants in their backyards it stinks so bad," Cook said. "I don't know about all the other dramas about medical marijuana How these issues become a freak show is beyond me."
Daniel Levine, spokesman for Citizens for Compassionate Use, which protests the growing restrictions and dispensary ban, said the local cannabis cause got an unlikely heroine in Daisy Bram and her wails over losing her children in a pot raid.
"It pulls the heartstrings," Levine said.
Editor's note: This story was changed May 30 to correct the spelling of the name of Los Angeles lawyer Michael Levinsohn.