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Sat Nov 17, 2012, 04:30 AM

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 didnít matter whether he actually owned or used them. Interestingly, it is the gun charge, not the weed, that Williamsí 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.

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