Drugs

The Mix Is the Message V: Drug War Explosions

In the latest crushing blow dealt by the feds, a medical marijuana user in California faces a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a pot conviction.
There is nothing more crazymaking in American society than the crashing crosscurrents of the drug war. On the one hand there is a population that has gone on record numerous times supporting decriminalization of pot and legal use of medical marijuana. On the other hand there is a rabid federal drug apparatus that clashes with local law enforcement and ignores public opinion expressed in statewide votes. Instead we are getting aggressive raids and punitive prosecutions. Between the clashing of these two world views, there is no middle ground.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Clarence Thomas, has extended the power of school districts to test and search students for drugs, underscoring once again, as Herman Schwartz writes in the Nation: "that for the Supreme Court, the rights of young people are shredded when they walk through the schoolhouse gates."

The latest crushing blow dealt by the Feds came on July 12 in Sacramento, Calif., where Bryan James Epis, a 35-year-old electrical engineer, was convicted for conspiracy and manufacturing of pot. Epis says he smokes pot for his own chronic pain and was cultivating it for other sick patients. He faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years.

Epis has been involved in a cannabis buyers club in Chico, which opened after voters in California approved a 1996 initiative that allowed the use of pot on the recommendation of a doctor. The jury found that Epis was planning to increase the number of pot plants he was growing to 1,000 in 1999, and that his residence in Chico was within 1,000 feet of Chico High School, which could increase his penalty.

According to Sacramento Bee reporter Denny Walsh, who has been covering the case closely, this is the first federal criminal case involving an organization like the Cannabis Club to reach a jury. "U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. granted prosecutor Samuel Wong's motion that Epis be jailed pending sentencing. Wong pointed out that the law under which Epis was found guilty mandates immediate incarceration, and the judge agreed."

Organizers with the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRC Net) suggest that the trial could be a harbinger of things to come as California medical marijuana advocates find themselves in an increasingly tense and heated conflict with the federal government. The Sacramento case was marked by accusations of obstruction of justice against Epis and Oakland Cannabis Co-op head Jeff Jones; Jones attempted to familiarize jurors with the concept of jury nullification, and Epis was accused by Judge Damrell of doing so. Damrell dismissed one batch of potential jurors before the trial could get underway because of pamphleteering around the courthouse, and had Jones briefly arrested. Epis returns to Damrell's court on Aug. 1 for a hearing on the obstruction of justice charge.

The battle with the feds over pot will no doubt spread to other states that have passed medical pot laws or may soon do so. The newest wrinkle is that voters in Nevada, which until last year had the nation's strictest marijuana laws, will decide in November whether to let adults legally possess small amounts of pot. Under the proposal, marijuana would be sold in state-licensed shops. A distribution system also would be set up to provide low-cost pot for medical uses.

Meanwhile, other persecuted medical pot advocates in the U.S. are seeking refugee status in Canada. Renee Boje, 32, is probably the most famous American fugitive in Canada. According to a report by Ross Crockford on AlterNet.org, Boje is currently under U.S. extradition to face charges for conspiracy to cultivate hundreds of cannabis plants at the Los Angeles home of Todd McCormick, a cancer patient and medical marijuana activist.

If convicted, Boje faces the same mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years that Epis is likely to receive in Sacramento. The severity of the sentence, Crockford says, has made her the poster child for the increasing numbers of U.S. citizens heading north to take advantage of Canada's liberal pot laws. "There are hundreds of Americans here," Renee Boje says, "because they're being persecuted by their own government."

There is a major difference between how medical marijuana laws are applied in Canada and the U.S. The Canadian federal government has granted permits to possess or grow marijuana to more than 800 Canadians who suffer from AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis. Yet although California voters passed Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has used federal law to raid and prosecute medical marijuana clubs across the state. In May last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the DEA's actions, ruling that "marijuana has no medical benefits," and this June the U.S. government obtained an injunction shutting down the few remaining California clubs.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the British Labor Party, which controls the government, moved toward a far saner approach on the pot question, by in effect decriminalizing possession, even though English conservatives are nibbling around the edges of the policy change. British Home Secretary David Blunkett explained that the Blair government wished to distinguish "between drugs which kill and drugs that cause harm." Blunkett told the House of Commons that "cannabis possession remains a criminal offense," but in most cases users would not be arrested. The move would effectively extend the so-called "Lambeth experiment" (police in the south London borough of Lambeth do not arrest but merely cite cannabis offenders) to the entire nation.

According to DRCNet, former British drug czar Keith Hellawell took Blunkett's pronouncement as a chance to resign with some notice. "This would virtually be the decriminalization of cannabis and this is, quite frankly, giving out the wrong message," he said in a press release. "Cannabis is simply not a sensible substance to take."

What a mess. Saner countries like our neighbor Canada and our former colonial master, England, along with other European countries, are able to make rational judgments between dangerous drugs and benign ones.

Here in the U.S. however, an hysterical anti-intellectualism (and a philosophy that views all drugs as equally bad,) continues to astound many Americans by its fundamental stupidity. Even though there have been signs of lightening up, the era of Ashcroft and Bush has ratcheted up the drug war several notches, flexing the government’s power to ruin lives, break up families and fill up jails. Despite the voices of millions of Americans who oppose the drug war, the end is not in sight, and those committed to the battle had better dig in for the long haul.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org.