Probation, Not Prison, For Pot Activist

When he woke up on Monday morning, Oakland medical marijuana activist Jeff Jones thought it would be his last day of freedom for months to come. On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski had sentenced Jones to begin a three-month sentence Monday in a federal prison for jury tampering, arising from Jones' distributing leaflets to potential jurors hearing a case against fellow activist Bryan Epis last year.

But when Nowinski arrived at work, his first action was to stay Jones' incarceration and order all parties involved in the case back to his courtroom. After saying in court Monday, "I gave this matter a great deal of thought over the weekend," Nowinski vacated the prison sentence, and instead sentenced Jones to probation and ordered him to pay almost $4,000 in restitution for the cost to the courts to re-empanel a jury last year after Jones gave members of the first jury pool information that the judge in this Epis trial had forbidden to be discussed in the case. What Jones wanted that jury to know was that the Epis defense had been forbidden to discuss medical marijuana or the California law authorizing its use.

Nowinski said that despite his previous ruling, he had decided that Jones did not belong in prison, "I had a heavy criminal calendar last month and saw nearly one thousand defendants; Mr. Jones is not a candidate to share a bunk with any one of them." When the prosecution asked that Jones be fined an additional $1,000, Nowinski refused, stating, "I'm sure Mr. Jones had $1,000 worth of anguish over the weekend."

Among those in the court to support Jones was Glenn Backes, health policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance, national advocacy group for medical marijuana. After the hearing he said, "We are incredibly impressed with Magistrate Judge Nowinski for his ability to reverse himself.... What a principled act."

Bryan Epis was sentenced to 10 years in prison last July for violating federal marijuana laws, and remains incarcerated pending appeal. Recently a photo of his 8-year old daughter Ashley was featured on billboards throughout the state, holding a sign that says, "My dad is not a criminal."

Jones' own interest in medical marijuana developed after the death of his father of cancer. He has directed the marijuana dispensary in Oakland since 1995.

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