Tidbits on Drug Policy

Another two cents thrown in

4th District Court of Appeal Returns Pot to Rightful Owner

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Eight grams of medical marijuana seized from a Garden Grove man during a traffic stop must be returned to him, according to an appeals court ruling directing local law enforcement to uphold state, not federal law.

Source: CBS2.com: Federal Court Rules Pot To Be Returned To Driver

Read the whole story by following the link above. The story is welcome news to anybody who prefers sensible drug policy. I managed to find the text of the decision online and, after reading it, here are my two cents:

The case is a triumph of sensible approach over the formalistic one. While the decision touches upon plenty of legal doctrines, such as standing, California medical marijuana laws, and even the 10th Amendment, the most striking feature about it is the willingness of the justices to use the aforementioned doctrines to render a decision on a very simple issue:

“…we are mindful this case involves an important issue related to California’s medical marijuana laws. As we explain below, those laws are intended to give qualified patients the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes. But if the City prevails, the police could thwart that objective by withholding marijuana they have seized from qualified patients, even when the patient is no longer subject to state criminal prosecution. Whether, as the City contends, this is a necessary consequence of federal drug policy is a question of first impression and one that is of considerable importance to those who rely on cannabis for medicinal purposes.”


No legal training is required to arrive at a sensible decision in a case like this. I don’t really believe in modern-day precedent-based jurisprudence, simply because a smart lawyer is always able to either cite a precedent in support of his argument, or, if he or she happens to represent an opposing side, to distinguish it. In the present decision, the Justices cite a bunch of cases that don’t support their decision, yet easily distinguish them from the situation they are faced with. Similarly, the legal doctrines can be twisted any way one wants, and that’s exactly what the Justices do. Just consider the following example:

“…the City argues that in enacting the CSA, Congress intended to occupy the field of marijuana regulation so extensively that ordering the return of a defendant’s medical marijuana under state law would be absolutely anathema to congressional intent. We cannot agree.”

Then, Justices proceed to create a solid legal foundation underneath their opinion. However – once again – no legal training is required to spot the fallacy of the statement above. Anybody who is familiar with the history of the Drug War and Drug War jurisprudence would likely agree with me that Congress did indeed intend to occupy the field of marijuana regulation as extensively as possible.

Now, I am not saying that the opinion is legally suspect. All I am saying is that a smart lawyer can use legal doctrines to justify diametrically opposite opinions. Actually, I think that the 4th District Court of Appeal rendered an opinion that is amazingly objective in its treatment of what’s really at stake. In the words of the court itself:

“We confront here the facially anomalous request that we approve state confiscation of a substance which is legal in the circumstances under which it was possessed.”

Anomalous is a very mild description of legally suspect regulations that have sprung up during the War on Drugs. The court above was able to prevent the creation of a yet another anomaly.

Originally written on January 7, 2008

How much should the jurors be told?

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Ed Rosenthal, a long-time medical marijuana advocate, is brought to trial in the federal court in San Fransisco on charges of marijuana cultivation. This is his second trial for essentially the same offense: growing marijuana as an agent for the city of Oakland’s medical marijuana distribution program (just to remind the readers, California legalized medical marijuana in 1996).

During his first trial in 2003, he was convicted and sentenced to only one day in jail (which he had already served at the time). That verdict was thrown out by the federal appeals court because of jury misconduct. Probably because Ed Rosenthal is such a well-known and an outspoken public figure, or possibly because they want a precedent on the books, the federal prosecutors are pursuing the conviction, even though they acknowledged that he could not be jailed if convicted again.

The larger issue here is that, just like in the first trial, the information that Ed Rosenthal was growing marijuana for sick patients is being withheld from the jurors. From what I remember, the 2003 conviction culminated in the angry jurors holding a press-conference to apologize to Rosenthal for convicting him and expressing their outrage for being manipulated. In the present case,

“District Judge Charles Breyer told the jurors they were there to decide whether Rosenthal was guilty of growing marijuana, not to draw conclusions about why the government was prosecuting him. For his part, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan described the case as a straightforward prosecution for marijuana cultivation.”

Source: San Fransisco Chronicle: Pot advocate’s new trial begins

Obviously, this is not a straightforward prosecution for marijuana cultivation. While social attitudes to recreational drug use might have remained the same, it seems like, at least in California, the public views therapeutic marijuana use in a favorable light. Not telling the jurors about the reason behind Rosenthal’s marijuana cultivation prods them to make a decision that they would not otherwise have made, as the previous attempt at prosecuting Rosenthal amply demonstrated. The evidence that marijuana cultivation was authorized by the city of Oakland for distribution to sick patients might be irrelevant under the federal Controlled Substances Act; however, it is very relevant to a group of Rosenthal’s peers who are called upon by the federal government to decide his guilt or innocence. As far as I know, the jury still has the power to acquit a defendant regardless of whether he technically broke the law or not. I guess, I can’t say it better than Wikipedia:

“Jury nullification refers to a rendering of a verdict by a trial jury, disagreeing with the instructions by the judge concerning what is the law, or whether such law is applicable to the case, taking into account all of the evidence presented. Although a jury’s refusal relates only to the particular case before it, if a pattern of such verdicts develops, it can have the practical effect of disabling the enforcement of that position on what is the law or how it should be applied. Juries are reluctant to render a verdict contrary to law, but a conflict may emerge between what judges and the public from whom juries are drawn hold the law to be. A succession of such verdicts may signal an unwillingness by the public to accept the law given them and may render it a “dead-letter” or bring about its repeal. The jury system was established because it was felt that a panel of citizens, drawn at random from the community, and serving for too short a time to be corrupted, would be more likely to render a just verdict than officials who may be unduly influenced. Jury nullification is a reminder that the right to trial by one’s peers affords the public an opportunity to take a dissenting view about the justness of a statute or official practices.” (Italics Added).

Source: Wikipedia: Jury Nullification

The federal prosecutors and Judge Breyer are undoubtedly aware of the very real possibility of the jury exercising its jury nullification right in this particular trial. Hence, they withheld the information from it, I suppose, on the grounds that the probative worth of such evidence is low considering that (a) it is irrelevant as far as the federal law is concerned, and (b) it might make jurors unduly sympathetic to the defendant and thus, render their reasonable doubts uhm… unreasonable. The irony here is that a reasonable person is likely to render a more equitable decision had he or she been presented with a full context behind Rosenthal’s marijuana cultivation. The fact that that decision would likely not be the one favorable to the government should not be dispositive in excluding the evidence.

Originally written on May 16, 2007

An 83-year-old woman forced to smoke crack – part of an ingenious plot

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An 83-year-old Florida woman was forced to smoke crack cocaine by her housemate, so that the latter could steal personal information to get a credit card in the old woman’s name. After successfully obtaining the credit card, the ingenious thief racked up more than $3,000 in charges before being arrested on April 28. She is charged with:

“[…] criminal use of personal identification, use of another person’s ID without permission and retail theft, according to jail records.

The sheriff’s office said more charges were pending…”

Source: CNN: Thief made woman, 83, smoke crack, police say

If the article is wholly true, the additional charges that are pending could include:

  • possession of a controlled substance;
  • distribution of a controlled substance;
  • battery (possibly aggravated, since either crack would be considered a “deadly weapon” or, in this context, involuntary crack smoking by an 83-year-old woman would be considered severe injury);
  • domestic violence (the article says the woman got the old lady to smoke crack at least twice);
  • elder abuse (if they have that in that jurisdiction – New York is currently trying to increase the penalties for elder abuse legislatively).

Some people really have a knack for complicating their lives. Had the crack “administrator” simply stole $3,000, she would be charged (under New York law) with larceny in the fourth, or possibly in the third degree. Instead, with one fell swoop, she has racked up an impressive criminal record.

Originally written on May 8, 2007

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