80 Years in the Slammer for Medical Pot: Drug War Injustices Abound, Despite Reforms

Americans are voting against marijuana prohibition in a rapidly growing number of states. Nonetheless, the federal government's refusal to recognize the will of the voters leaves a mess of policy in states that have already legalized medical pot. Mandatory minimums for conspiracy and gun charges related to marijuana trafficking can quickly add up to a sentence lasting decades, even if the accused conspired to sell weed in a state where a majority of voters legalized it. Changes in sentencing are afoot following the electoral momentum; in Washington, more than 200 open marijuana cases have already been dismissed. This week in Boulder, CO, the district attorney dropped marijuana possession cases against adults 21 and older. But the tragedies and injustices of the drug war continue.

Last month, the Fourth District Court of Appeal for California issued a landmark decision reversing the conviction of San Diego marijuana dispensary operator Jovan Jackson because his role as a medical provider was previously denied as evidence. In other words, he was denied a defense. It should set precedent for other cases against medical marijuana distributors in California, but in the 15 other states where medical pot has been legalized, providers can still be denied a medical defense. The result can be a hefty sentence, stacking up to dozens of years behind bars for providing a legal service.

The fate of Montana Cannabis Industry Association cofounder Chris Williams is a shocking example. Williams, who lives in Montana, a medical pot state, was convicted of eight counts of marijuana and firearms charges this September. Facing 80 years in mandatory minimums, Williams was forbidden from testifying that he was complying with state medical marijuana law. Like many other medical marijuana prisoners, jurors never heard his side of the story. He was cast as a dangerous drug dealer, instead of the medical pot distributor the people had voted for.

Also like others, Williams was held accountable not only for his own crimes, but for those of his business associates and codefendants. The guns discovered may not have been his, but because he was had access to them, it didn’t matter whether he actually owned or used them. Interestingly, it is the gun charge, not the weed, that Williams’ attorney, Michael Donahoe, considers evidence of a witch hunt. Donahoe has said that federal prosecutors often charge medical marijuana defendants with gun crimes, but not because they plan to prosecute them. Instead, says Donahoe, prosecutors are adding charges to threaten defendants with a lengthy prison term that would encourage defendants to accept a plea bargain.

“We know this for two reasons,” Donahoe told the Missoulan. “First, because the government readily agreed to dismiss the firearms counts for virtually every other medical marijuana defendant in those cases where firearms violations had been charged. And second, because insofar as [Williams’] ‘conspiracy’ is concerned, every other defendant had no real choice but to plead guilty in exchange for the firearms charges being dropped.”

He added, “Given the government’s conduct here, that was a false choice inspired by an abusive exercise of government power, considering that it was the government’s reckless decision to change its medical marijuana policy that was the first cause of all these problems.”

Williams' case is evidence that Donahoe may be right. While one gun charge carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, the other three carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years, and each must be served consecutively. The charges were so outlandish that they prompted a rare peace offering from a prosecutor. This September, US Attorney Michael Cotter offered to drop four of Williams’ charges and knock his sentence down to “as little as 10 years,” if Williams agreed to waive his right to appeal. Williams refused, vowing to fight for justice instead. “I have decided to fight the federal government, because for me not defending the things that I know are right is dishonorable,” Williams wrote to the Independent Record. "Every citizen has a responsibility to fight for what is right, even if it seems like the struggle will be lost.”

In prison without parole, Williams will be sentenced on Jan. 4, 2013. His codefendants, Richard Flor, Tom Daubert and Chris Lindsey accepted plea bargains. But Flor, 68, never made it out of jail. He suffered two heart attacks, renal and kidney failure, and died while being temporarily held in a Las Vegas jail this summer. He was reportedly shackled to his bed while on life support. His attorney Brad Arndorfer blamed his death on a failed justice system. "The fault is in prosecuting a man like this. The next fault is sentencing a man like this to prison. Then you've got the Marshals Service taking him to a place like Crossroads, which has no medical facilities capable of taking care of him,” Arndorfer told the Associated Press.

Williams fights not only for his friend Flor, but for many other victims of our draconian drug policy. Brian Epis, the first California medical marijuana provider to be arrested and convicted for marijuana cultivation, knows what it’s like to be caught in the mixup between federal and state laws. Conspiracy charges related to his community of medical growers linked him to more than 1,000 pot plants, and he received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. It was eventually reduced to 90 months, with a catch. Epis was forbidden from advocating for marijuana policy reform during his sentence or first 10 years of freedom under “supervised release.”

Often, convicted “drug dealers” attract little sympathy from the public. But with Americans increasingly understanding the insanity of incarcerating pot smokers, locking up pot dealers is start looking to look pretty crazy, especially when just because it’s legal doesn’t mean they won’t arrest you.

Rebecca Richman Cohen, director of the new film Code of the West, which is about the contradiction between state and federal pot laws, says news of state-by-state marijuana legalization highlights the confused policy.

“In the wake of Tuesday’s votes to legalize adult use of marijuana in Colorado and Washington and medical marijuana in Massachusetts, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how federal authorities will treat patients, consumers, and growers complying with state marijuana laws,” Cohen said. “The story of Chris Williams illustrates what happens when people fall into the cracks between state and federal law.”
Perhaps more than a divide between state and federal law, it is a divide between the people and their leaders and a sign of the inertia of the legal justice system. Fixty-six percent of Americans want pot to be legal, yet a marijuana arrest went down every 42 seconds in 2011.

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