Medical Marijuana

Jury Ragging

Medical pot in federal courts


When Ed Rosenthal was convicted on federal marijuana cultivation charges last winter, his friends and supporters were not the only ones who were upset. So were the people who convicted him.

"'I'm sorry' doesn't begin to cover it," said one juror. "It's the most horrible mistake I've ever made in my entire life." The foreman said, "We as a jury truly were kept in the dark."

Jurors complained they had not been told that Rosenthal had been growing marijuana in cooperation with the city of Oakland, for patients who are allowed to use it as a medicine under California law. That information was excluded by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer because federal law does not recognize marijuana as a medicine or allow a defense of medical necessity against drug charges. Rosenthal's conviction, which carried a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, was therefore a foregone conclusion.

Seeing the futility of defending themselves in federal court, three officers of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center—Scott Imler, Jeff Yablan, and Jeffrey Farrington—have decided to plead guilty to charges of "knowingly opening and maintaining a place where [marijuana] was manufactured, distributed or used." Without a plea, the three would have faced additional charges, carrying mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years or more. They still could face prison terms. "We are hopeful that the judge will be fair when considering our actions within the totality of the situation," Imler said in a March 24 letter to supporters.

A bill introduced in April would give growers and distributors of medical marijuana an alternative to throwing themselves on the mercy of courts constrained by federal sentencing guidelines. The Truth in Trials Act—sponsored by two California congressmen, Democrat Sam Farr and Republican Dana Rohrabacher—would allow defendants in marijuana cases to present evidence that their actions were permitted under state law, in which case they could be acquitted.

"This is a matter of basic fairness," said Robert Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Jurors who could imprison someone for decades for trying to help the sick have a right to hear the whole truth, not a censored version that is stripped of any facts the government doesn't like."