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Will Compliance With State Medical Pot Laws Finally be Admissible in Federal Prosecutions?

A bipartisan effort has reintroduced the Truth in Trials Act again -- but will unprecedented federal crackdowns help push it through the House?
 
 
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US Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) Tuesday introduced  House Resolution 6134, the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow defendants in federal criminal prosecutions the ability to use medical marijuana evidence at trial. The bipartisan legislation has 18 cosponsors so far, including Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX).

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Reps. Sam Farr and Barbara Lee, with Ashley Epis, daughter of medical marijuana prison Bryan Epis, 2003 (safeaccessnow.org)
 

This is not the first time around for the act -- a version was first introduced in 2003 and it has been introduced repeatedly since then -- but this time it comes as federal crackdowns in states like California, Colorado, and Montana are creating an increase in federal drug prosecutions against medical marijuana providers. Since the crackdowns began, at least 70 people who were medical marijuana patients or providers have been indicted on federal drug charges.

Currently in federal criminal cases, medical marijuana providers are not allowed to present evidence that they were operating under state medical marijuana laws. Federal prosecutors can exclude all evidence of medical use or state law compliance in federal trials, virtually guaranteeing the convictions of medical marijuana patients and providers.

"The federal government has tilted the scales of justice towards conviction by denying medical marijuana defendants the right to present all of the evidence at trial," said Congressman Farr. "My bill would restore due process rights to law-abiding citizens acting within the parameters of state and local laws. Juries should hear the entire story of a patient's medical marijuana use before choosing to convict, not the heavily edited version they currently hear."

Under the bill, people facing federal prosecution could "introduce evidence demonstrating that the marijuana-related activities for which the person stands accused were performed in compliance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana."

The bill would also create an affirmative defense under federal law. "It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution or proceeding under any federal law for marijuana-related activities, which the proponent must establish by a preponderance of the evidence, that those activities comply with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana," the bill says.

And the bill would make it harder for the federal government to seize and destroy medical marijuana. "No plant may be seized under any federal law otherwise permitting such seizure if the plant is being grown or stored pursuant to a recommendation by a physician or an order of a state or municipal agency in accordance with state law regarding the medical use of marijuana," the bill says.

"The federal government should be leaving enforcement issues up to the local and state officials who designed the medical marijuana laws in the first place," said Steph Sherer, executive director of  Americans for Safe Access, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group and strong supporters of the legislation introduced today. "But, as long as the Justice Department is going to arrest and prosecute people in medical marijuana states, defendants ought to have a right to a fair trial. The 'Truth in Trials' Act will restore the balance of justice and bring fundamental fairness to federal medical marijuana trials."

Most federal medical marijuana cases result in plea bargains due to the denial of a defense at trial. But some defendants still choose to fight the charges -- and they lose. That was the case with Morro Bay, California, dispensary operator Charles Lynch, who was convicted and sentenced in 2008 after being unable to cite his compliance with state law.

Lynch is out on bail pending his appeal, which is currently before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. He's doing better than Chico medical marijuana provider Bryan Epis, who is currently sitting in federal prison working on a 10-year sentence after fighting and losing his case and his appeals.

The bill could help -- not only with the immediate issue of medical marijuana legal defenses in federal court, but also in the broader ambit of marijuana law reform, advocates said.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction, even if it isn't as far-reaching as some of the other bills," said  Marijuana Policy Project communications director Morgan Fox, alluding to the four other marijuana-related bills introduced in Congress this session. "If the administration is going to continue cracking down they way they have been, it would be nice to have an affirmative defense."

"This is the fifth marijuana bill this session," noted  Drug Policy Alliance national affairs director Bill Piper. "That's a sign of momentum. It used to be a struggle to get one introduced, and now we have five and could see even more. When you look at issues that are moving, you see a lot of competing bills. This is a good sign," he said.

Piper held out little hope of any forward progress on the bill this year. "It's unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled House, but you never know about next year," Piper said.

But while the conventional wisdom is that marijuana reform legislation is unlikely to move in the House, Fox isn't so sure.

"The needle seems to be swinging, and it's possible House conservatives might try to use this in a symbolic way to go against the administration in an election period without having to significantly change their policies," he said, noting the low number of federal prosecutions it would actually effect. "It would be significant for the people getting arrested, of course, but that number is fairly small."

Allowing medical marijuana patients and providers to mount evidence that they are complying with state medical marijuana laws is the right thing to do, said Piper.

"It's just common sense to allow patients to tell juries the truth," Piper said. "It's not asking for much, just for defendants to be able to tell the truth."

Washington, DC
United States