Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Another Way To End The War On Drugs

I read a story recently about a jury in rural Illinois that found one of their peers not guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, a crime that would have resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of six years. Now that alone may not sound like much, but this guy was caught with 25 pounds of marijuana and a number of live plants in his home. It was an open and shut case, and conviction appeared certain. Nevertheless, the jury acquitted the defendant.

How can that be? If you’ve ever served on a jury, you know that the judge instructs you to base your decision on the law and the facts of the case. No other factors, including the possible sentence, should influence your decision. But what the judge never tells you is that as a member of a jury you are a part of your government’s system of checks and balances. You are the last line of defense against unjust laws and cruel or unusual punishment. If you feel a law or its application is unjust or the penalty too severe, even if the evidence overwhelmingly indicates guilt, you have the right to find a defendant not guilty. In other words you, as a member of a jury, have the power to nullify a law. This power is called jury nullification, and is a right that has been exercised by U.S. juries throughout our nation’s history. It is also a right that judges and prosecutors do their best to keep jurors ignorant of. In fact, it is not unusual for a judge to declare a mistrial if the defense mentions anything even remotely related to jury nullification.

Officially, jury nullification is defined as “the process whereby a jury in a criminal case effectively nullifies a law by acquitting a defendant regardless of the weight of evidence against them.” What this means in practice is that not only is the defendant on trial, but the law is as well. Of course a jury’s decision applies only to that one particular case. But if a pattern develops over time, it can essentially prevent a law from being enforced. And thus it provides a way for the people to express opposition to an unpopular law.

Jury nullification is nothing new. In fact John Jay, first Chief Justice of the U.S. is quoted as saying, “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy.” There are several notable examples of the use of jury nullification in our history. Way back in the colonial days, juries refused to convict for certain violations of English law. And in the pre-Civil War days, juries sometimes refused to convict for violations of the Fugitive Slave Act. And in the last century it is estimated that 60 percent of the time juries refused to convict for violations of the 18th Amendment (alcohol prohibition). Some consider this refusal to convict as contributing to the adoption of the 21st Amendment (repeal of prohibition).

The tricky thing about jury nullification is that even though the courts have upheld this right since 1840, recent decisions have also upheld the court’s right to refuse to allow the defense to instruct a jury about it. What that means is that as a citizen it is your responsibility to know your rights as a member of a jury. Regardless of what a judge might or might not tell you, it is up to you to know that as a member of a jury you have the right to nullify a law. So now you know. Wake the kids and phone the neighbors. Tell everyone you know. If someone you know is going to serve on a jury, especially for a case that involves simple possession of marijuana, please mention this power to them. It is starting to look like this is the only way the will of the majority is going to be heard when it comes to the war on drugs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Your Government Wants You To Smoke Joints

There are currently 12 states in the U.S. that have more or less decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But what does that mean? And what about the rest of the country? Let’s take a look at the current legal status of marijuana in the U.S.

First, the good news. Believe it or not, there is one state in the Union that has legalized the possession of marijuana. Do you know which one? Give up? It’s Alaska. Because their state constitution guarantees a right to privacy, the state’s courts have upheld the decision that personal possession cannot be a crime. Too bad the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee the same right to privacy.

In the rest of the country, possession of marijuana is either a civil offense (i.e., decriminalized) or a misdemeanor, depending on the amount. The following states have essentially decriminalized marijuana:

CA – less than 1 oz. no arrest

CO – less than 1 oz. petty offense

GA – less than 1 oz. probation

ME – less than 1.25 oz. civil violation

MA* – less than 1 oz. civil offense

MS – less than 1 oz. no arrest

NE – less than 1 oz. civil citation

NV* – less than 1 oz. rehab

NY* – less than 25 g civil citation

OH* – less than 100 g minor misdemeanor

TX – less than 2 oz. class B misdemeanor


If you live anywhere else in the U.S. and are arrested for simple possession you could potentially spend up to 1 and a half years in prison for a misdemeanor conviction and pay thousands of dollars in fines. Those states are:









































And don’t get caught in Puerto Rico, as possession of any amount there is a felony.

What this means is that in most states, if you are convicted of simple possession you may or may not go to jail. But whether you’re incarcerated or not, you will have a criminal record with a misdemeanor conviction on it.

And I bet you’re wondering what all those asterisks mean. Those indicate states in which the penalty for possession of paraphernalia is as severe, or in some cases, worse than for possession of marijuana. Take Ohio for example—outside of Alaska one of the most tolerant states when it comes to marijuana. You can be convicted of possessing up to 100 grams (that’s 3.5 oz.) and receive a maximum fine of $100 with no criminal record. But if you are convicted for possession of paraphernalia, you could receive up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $750, and a criminal record.

Since our government is so concerned about the messages they are sending when it comes to recreational drug use, what kind of message are they sending our children with these laws? In the states where possessing paraphernalia is a more serious offense than possessing marijuana, I think the message is quite clear. If you’re going to smoke, don’t use a bong. Or a vaporizer, or a pipe, or anything like that. Yes, your government is telling you that smoking joints is the preferred method of getting high. Or using a soda can, or a pen, or a plastic bottle, or an apple, or a piece of aluminum foil. As long as you don’t go out and buy something specifically made for smoking marijuana, you’re OK. Message received, loud and clear. And understood. Bongs bad, joints good.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Think For Yourself

I recently read this article about the decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts. The article talks about the new law and how the police plan on enforcing it. And the article includes the obligatory comment by someone opposed to the new law about the gateway effect and sending the wrong message to our children. But what is really interesting is the response to the article. As is often the case, the comments are much more interesting and informative than the article itself.

As you might expect, the majority of the comments are people in favor of the new law, which is not surprising since it was voted in by a majority of the people. People that like the new law mention things like not ruining a kid’s life because of being caught with a joint, or saving taxpayer money. You know, common-sense kinds of things.

The few comments from people opposed to the new law however are something different entirely. They are, almost invariably, a regurgitation of the same government propaganda we’ve been hearing for the past 70 years—it’s a gateway drug; it makes you a lazy slacker; it causes lung cancer; it causes brain damage; there is no safe level of use; successful, well-adjusted adults do not smoke it. The usual. These are the ones that want to put people in jail for smoking marijuana, yet their justifications for being so harsh are based on ignorance and/or misinformation.

My point is that with something as important as prohibition, which has destroyed countless people’s lives, maybe you should have some facts before you go talking about sending the right message to our kids. Don’t believe everything your government tells you (e.g., weapons of mass destruction). Do a little research. Spend 15 minutes with Google and see what you can find out. You might learn that virtually every major legitimate scientific study done since the 1940s, in this country and around the world, refutes these common misconceptions. Even studies conducted by our very own government recommend decriminalization. So all those reasons given by the people who oppose the new law are simply not based on any real facts. I’m not saying that there might not be other, valid reasons for opposing the decriminalization law, but I didn’t see a single one in any of the opposing comments.

It’s not that I’m trying to say that this is a good law. I think you can probably guess my opinion on that. My point is that if you are going to have a position on an important issue, please get some facts. Don’t believe everything you hear, and think for yourself.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?

Ever see that TV show Cops? Well this is sort of like the exact opposite of that. It’s a web-based show called KopBusters. KopBusters is a reality show that sets up stings to catch crooked cops. Yes, I know what you are thinking, but it’s true—there are indeed some police officers in the U.S. of A. who do not always play by the rules. And the show’s creator ought to know. He used to be a police officer. And he himself did some not-strictly-legal things during his career in law enforcement (or so he says).

Now I don’t know if this show is supposed to be a series or what, as there is currently only one “episode.” Even so, it’s worth watching just to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them for once. (The “bad guys” in this case being the police.)

What got the KopBusters involved in this particular case was the sentencing of a young Odessa, Texas woman to 8 years in prison for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. There appears to be evidence (e.g. forged documents, informant’s testimony) to indicate that police planted the drugs this woman was convicted of possessing. That evidence was allegedly ignored at her trial. So her father brought in KopBusters to expose the wrongdoing on the part of the local police.

What KopBusters did was rent an house in Odessa and secretly set up a marijuana grow operation. But they didn’t grow marijuana there. No, they planted two small Christmas trees under their high-intensity lights. They also wired the house for video and had the cameras transmitting to a remote location. And then they waited.

It didn’t take long before the house was raided. In addition to the Christmas-tree growing operation, the raiding officers were greeted with a sign informing them that there was no one in the house and nothing illegal was going on there. Oh, and that they were on camera as part of a sting operation. As you can imagine, this is not the sort of thing that makes the police very happy. And rightly so. Being caught on video tape using an illegal warrant can ruin anybody’s day. So they arrested the KopBusters’ attorney when he showed up on the scene. He was eventually released, under pressure, but according to an evening news story the police were still trying to figure out how to charge the KopBusters with a crime. Which strikes me as just a bit crazy when the police were the ones engaging in illegal activities. Ironic even.

Now as great as this scenario sounds, I do have some misgivings about it. For example, “Mr. KopBusters,” Barry Cooper, is a former police officer who has been making money selling a video showing people how to avoid being arrested for using illegal drugs. A noble concept, but you have to wonder about people’s motives when money is involved. Is he selling out his former profession by using his inside knowledge for profit? Or is he trying to make up for his former evil doings? I don’t know, but having all the pertinent information is the only way to come to an informed decision.

And one thing that really makes me wonder about the legitimacy of this sting is the way the local police found out about this “grow operation” in the first place. If the house was set up in secret, how did anybody outside their organization know about it? It’s not entirely clear to me, but it appears that an “anonymous tip” was delivered to the police. And that alone, they say, is what led to the search warrant. Of course an anonymous tip in and of itself is not sufficient grounds for issuing a search warrant. So there’s some part of the story we’re not being told. But since the police refused to provide KopBusters with a copy of their warrant, I guess we’ll never know. (I don’t quite understand this, since I thought the police were supposed to present their warrant to the person being raided.) So for now at least I’m going to give KopBusters the benefit of the doubt and chalk one up for the good guys.