Weed Watch: Senate Mulls Med-Mari Defense

Bill would allow medical use claims in drug cases; mandatory sentencing slagged

U.S. Sens. Richard Durbin ,D-Ill.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., last week introduced legislation that would allow medical-marijuana patients to raise the issue of medical necessity as an affirmative defense if tried on drug charges in federal court. Since marijuana is defined as a drug with no "accepted medical use" by the Controlled Substances Act, defendants brought up on federal marijuana charges cannot currently bring forth evidence either that their use is medicinal or that they use marijuana in compliance with state law. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the feds have taken legal action against about 50 medi-mari patients and providers, mostly in California, which legalized the medical use of marijuana in 1996. The senators' new bill, S.2989, is a companion to the House Truth in Trials Act, (H.1717), which was originally introduced in April 2003, and later died in committee.

On the drug-crime front, Massachusetts Judge Robert Mulligan – the state's chief justice for administration and management of its trial courts – last week blasted the state's "drug-free zone" law, arguing that it is "discriminatory, and corrodes faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system." The law – signed under former Gov. Michael Dukakis – imposes a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for defendants convicted of drug possession within 1,000 feet of a school. "The purpose behind school zones is to keep drugs away from schools, and that's a legitimate purpose," Mulligan said. "But school doesn't have to be in session; it can be at night, it can be during the summer. So it doesn't really achieve its goals." Moreover, Mulligan said, the law has disproportionately affected minorities and city residents. In Boston, "unless you're on the tarmac of Logan Airport, you're within 1,000 feet of a school," he said.

Under Texas' similar law, the 1,000-foot drug-free zone includes any property "owned, rented, or leased" by a school – including district offices and facilities where children are rarely present. Texas has also designated a drug-free zone within 300 feet of public swimming pools and video arcades. Getting popped with drugs inside the zone means the state can enhance punishment – i.e., a state jail felony becomes a third-degree felony; a second-degree felony can be pumped up to first-degree. "I'm not saying that minorities are being targeted, and I'm not saying that the arresting officers are unfair, but I'm saying that the policy itself is not wise," Mulligan said of the Bay State law.

In other disproportionate sentencing news, on Nov. 16 in Salt Lake City, U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell blasted the federal mandatory-minimum sentencing scheme after sentencing 25-year-old Weldon Angelos to 55 years in prison for selling a small amount of marijuana to a police informant while armed. Angelos was packing a pistol in an ankle holster when he sold the dope to an informant, which enhanced his sentence, even though Angelos was not accused of using or threatening to use his weapon. Ironically, earlier that day Cassell handed down a 22-year sentence to a man accused of beating an elderly woman to death with a log. Cassell told Angelos that he was "reluctantly" imposing the 55-year sentence, the Drug Reform Coordination Network reports. "I have no choice," Cassell said, adding that Angelos' attorneys should appeal the ruling and appeal to President Bush for clemency. "Is there a rational basis for giving Mr. Angelos more time than the hijacker, the murderer, the rapist?" the judge asked. Sentencing Angelos to jail until he turns 70, Cassell said, is "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014


Weed Watch, mandatory minimums, Weldon Angelos, Paul Cassell, Drug Free Zone, medical marijuana, Robert Mulligan, Truth in Trials Act

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle