Marijuana

He Faces 10 Years to Life for Selling Pot, a Legal Business in Most States

Jonathan Wall, whose federal trial begins on May 2, notes that many people openly engage in similar conduct with impunity.

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Jonathan Wall, a 26-year-old cannabis entrepreneur, has been confined at a federal supermax facility in Maryland for nearly 20 months, awaiting a May 2 trial that could send him to prison for life. Wall is accused of transporting more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana from California, where cannabis is legal for recreational use, to Maryland, which allows only medical use.

Wall's case illustrates the draconian penalties that can still be imposed on people for selling pot at a time when most states have legalized marijuana businesses. As far as the federal government is concerned, all of those businesses are criminal enterprises. But depending on how federal prosecutors choose to exercise their discretion, selling pot can make you millions of dollars as a state-licensed supplier, or it can send you to prison for decades.

Under federal law, distributing 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum penalty of life in prison. Maryland also treats unauthorized marijuana sales harshly: A "drug kingpin" (meaning "an organizer, supervisor, financier, or manager") in a case involving 50 pounds or more is subject to "imprisonment for not less than 20 years and not exceeding 40 years without the possibility of parole." In California, by contrast, state-licensed recreational sales are legal, while selling marijuana without a license is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

"I know what you're thinking," Wall writes in a Truthout essay published last August. "How can it be that the punishment for selling weed is so severe, especially in this day and age, with widespread decriminalization and cannabis medicinally or recreationally legal in the majority of states and territories that make up this country?" It's a good question.

Thirty-seven states have legalized medical marijuana, and 18 of them, accounting for more than two-fifths of the U.S. population, also allow recreational use. While two-thirds of Americans think marijuana should be legal, the federal government continues to classify it as a Schedule I drug, a category supposedly reserved for substances that have a high potential for abuse, have no accepted medical applications, and cannot be used safely even under medical supervision.

Although President Joe Biden has said he favors reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug, his administration has not initiated that process, which in any event would not affect the criminal penalties that defendants like Wall face. Biden opposes repealing the federal ban on marijuana, which seems inconsistent with his position that states should be free to legalize cannabis without federal interference.

Biden also promised that he would "broadly use his clemency power" to commute the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders and specifically said that anyone who had been convicted of marijuana offenses "should be let out of jail." But so far he has not used his clemency power at all. Far from releasing people who violated pot prohibition, his administration is trying to imprison more of them, as Wall's case shows.

"Who will be the last person incarcerated for marijuana in the United States?" asked the headline of a full-page ad that Wall's supporters ran in The Washington Post last September. But even in the unlikely event that the Senate joined the House in approving a bill repealing federal prohibition, and even if Biden changed his mind and signed it, that would not necessarily mean people would no longer be "incarcerated for marijuana."

First, states would be free to keep marijuana illegal, and many of them continue to treat cultivation and sale as serious crimes worthy of severe punishment. In Texas, where I live, all sales involving more than 7 grams (about a quarter of an ounce) are felonies. Selling up to five pounds carries a mandatory minimum of six months and a maximum of two years; the penalty is two to 20 years for five to 50 pounds, five to 99 years for 50 to 2,000 pounds, and 10 to 99 years for more than 2,000 pounds.

Second, federal legalization may include criminal penalties for people who do not comply with tax and regulatory provisions. Under the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which the House approved on April 1, producers who fail to pay an "occupation tax" can be punished by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine; the maximum penalty for marijuana suppliers who fail to obtain a federal permit is five years and a $10,000 fine.

While those penalties may seem light compared to the punishment that awaits Wall, they are more severe than the fines and jail terms that Congress authorized for people who violated the Volstead Act, which implemented federal alcohol prohibition after passage of the 18th Amendment. Under the Volstead Act, a first-time offender convicted of manufacturing or selling liquor could be punished by up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000 (equivalent to about $16,600 today). Those maximums rose to five years or a $2,000 fine for subsequent offenses.

By the standards of today's war on drugs, such penalties look pretty mild. Juries nevertheless commonly balked at convicting people of violating the Volstead Act or equivalent state laws. "In New York," Daniel Okrent notes in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, "the first four thousand arrests under the Mullan-Gage law [the state's version of the Volstead Act] resulted in fewer than five hundred indictments, which led in turn to only six convictions and not even one jail sentence."

Jury nullification seems even more fitting for Wall, since the penalties he faces are much more severe, the drug he allegedly sold is less hazardous than alcohol by several important measures, and the ban he is charged with violating, unlike alcohol prohibition, has no obvious constitutional basis (at least as it pertains to intrastate activities). While defendants who have clearly broken the law generally are not allowed to urge an acquittal in the interest of justice, jurors are apt to notice that the Justice Department is trying to imprison Wall for conduct that is legal in much of the country.

Wall's Denver-based attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, spends some of his time advising cannabis investors. "I am in a situation where I get off the phone with Jonathan," he told Insider, "and the next phone call is from somebody in Nevada who is looking to invest $1.5 million into a cannabis corporation based here in Colorado that is expanding into Mexico….These are the exact same activities."

One might reasonably disagree with that last claim, since Wall is charged with transporting marijuana into a state that does not allow recreational sales. But that detail does not matter under federal law: Even if Maryland had no objection to what Wall did, he would still face the same federal penalties, and so would state-licensed marijuana suppliers if the feds chose to prosecute them. Although an annually renewed spending rider currently precludes prosecution of state-licensed medical marijuana suppliers, that restriction does not apply to businesses that serve the recreational market.

As Flores-Williams sees it, the injustice of federal marijuana penalties is especially clear when they are applied unevenly. "Right now there is this profound inconsistency in this country," he told Insider. "I go to court in Maryland, and then just 40 miles down the road you've got a 72,000-square-foot warehouse that's rented out for the next 20 years because someone was smart enough to buy it and convert it into a pot grow and rent it out."

Flores-Williams argued that the indictment against Wall should be dismissed on equal protection grounds. "A citizen's ability to engage in this American market depends neither on talent nor [on] work ethic, but on the preferences of the local prosecutor," he wrote. "If you're in LA and own several dispensaries, then you are a successful businessperson. If you're in Maryland, then you are evidently a criminal."

Flores-Williams noted that "there are millions of people right now in this country who are engaged in the manufacture, distribution, and/or possession of cannabis, who are not, in fact, being prosecuted." Depending on where they happen to be located, he said, "some citizens [are] enjoying economic liberties that other citizens are being denied, which violates bedrock equal protection law."

Last May, Flores-Williams tells me, U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher rejected that argument from the bench without offering much in the way of legal reasoning. The double standard that Flores-Williams highlights nevertheless should trouble the jurors who hear Wall's case. Flores-Williams says it's not clear how much leeway he will have to talk about disparate treatment of marijuana suppliers, since prosecutors will argue that it's irrelevant to the charges against Wall, but "we're going to fight like maniacs" to make that point at trial.

Wall notes that former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who had no qualms about marijuana prohibition when he served in Congress, is now "sitting on the board of Acreage Holdings, one of the largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the world." The ad calling attention to Wall's case pointed out that "cannabis corporations" in Maryland and other states are "making billions in revenue growing, manufacturing and distributing pot," while celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, and Seth Rogen have their own marijuana brands. "Jonathan Wall faces life in prison," the ad said, "while Beyonce says that she's starting a cannabis farm. This is not the way the law is supposed to work."

[This post has been updated to note that Wall would be subject to the same federal penalties even if recreational use were legal in Maryland.]

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  1. sentencing guidelines are wrong.

    1. This nation is a joke ("...and justice for all."), run by jokers. Biden is a big fat liar, who made promises he had no intention of keeping.

    2. Rules? in a knife fight?! Promises? in a Kleptocracy political campaign?!

  2. Fuck Joe Biden

  3. But this person wouldn't've been shipping a metric ton across the country if it'd been legal. The only inducement such an entrepreneur has is its illegality. Otherwise the profit wouldn't justify the job. I mean, there'd be a job, but it'd be that of a trucker transporting loads of vegetables across the country, making that kind of money, and the person getting hired would get the business because of hir general experience with such long haul transport of goods, either as an employee or an owner-operator, probably someone with a very different career from that of this person. It'd likely be somebody making a regular run, and not the sort of entrepreneur putting together this shipment as a special haul.

    So didn't this person ask for it?

    1. Sure, in the same sense that a black person showing up at a midnight KKK ritual in the Old South was asking for it! In the same sense that a cackling, stooped, ugly old woman walking into a crowd of Dark Ages witch-burners was asking for it!

      Taking known risks, yes. Being punished for absolutely no good reasons, by ignorant and-or evil barbarians? Also yes!

      And the righteous will ALSO be persecuted! For full details, see http://www.churchofsqrls.com/Do_Gooders_Bad/

      1. Except, the KKK doesn't benefit the black person, the witch burners don't benefit the woman, etc. But marijuana's illegality and its enforcement did benefit this person, to the degree that the person wouldn't've been doing it otherwise.

        1. Well yeah. Pot prohibition creates the black market "benefit" to encourage him to "ask for it."

          I'm not sure if you are implying this is justice or just pointing out the absurdity of the law.

        2. So, just as declaring beer a felony narcotic increased its price fourfold, so declaring plant leaves a felony narcotic is another case of pull-peddling politicians using to force of law--not to defend rights--but to crush freedom of trade and production under the weight of cruel and cowardly sumptuary laws.

    2. Oh, yes, and, how can I forget?!? Women who dress provocatively are asking to be raped!

      (Men can't be asked to control themselves, under such circumstances. And Government Almighty can't be asked to control itself, when someone, somewhere, might be getting a buzz off of a "controlled substance", which is defined as whatever Government Almighty says that it is.)

      1. Or you could just forget and state the facts logically, instead of trying to make unrelated, unlike comparisons that are only designed to provoke an emotional response. (And just because some of you can't understand not being on one side or the other, logic or facts; I do agree it's bad law and needs to be removed).

    3. Like when I opened my casino in Tennessee

    4. Did the politicians voting the force-initiating law ask to be assassinated or at least voted out in retaliation? The same violence that begets crony profits and televangelist satisfaction at watching people suffer also invites unequal yet very apposite reprisal force.

  4. Looking at his photo there, I am not certain he doesn't deserve any punishment we give to him.

    1. Ok, let’s ruin his life over his photo.

      1. Glad we agree. Damn hipsters.

        1. I guess every post I make should come with a “sarc” tag.

          1. I hope someday you appreciate the irony of saying that in response to me.

  5. The "it's legal elsewhere so it should be legal here" is a pretty shaky defense for a major felony. I think that's technically called the "fluffy bunnies and rainbow farts" defense.

    If he thought it should be legal in Maryland, he should have campaigned to get the law changed *first.* He didn't, so too bad.

    1. Kinda like the witches in Dark Ages Europe?

      (Get the local laws against witches struck down FIRST, and THEN you can keep on with your pre-Christian paganism, infidel! Now quit yer bitchin' as we BURN ye, heathen WITCH!!!!).

      1. I think every person should be able to use any drug they want.

        I also think they should be able to own any weapons they want.

        Federal prison is a real thing though.

        1. Especially for putting feet on Pelosi desk.

          1. Not holding my breath for Sullum to write an article defending the rights of the 1/6 protesters.

        2. But only with a BIPOC facilitator.

      2. Yes, exactly like that. Knowingly taking actions that the legal authorities have been prohibited and which will get you harsh punishments is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble. The pagans and the drug dealers both knowingly choose to set themselves in harms way for entirely optional activities.

    2. It's federal law. It doesn't matter if rec was legal in Maryland.

      1. Same difference. Correction noted.

  6. What if he bought 1000 kg of cigarettes in Missouri (where tax is low) and then brought them to sell in NYC?

    While also stupid, that's also very illegal.

    If you are going to commit crimes, then you face a risk of being caught

    1. If you are going to commit crimes, then you face a risk of being caught

      Well, that completely justifies having laws that are stupid, arbitrary, and unfair. Thanks for settling this for us.

      1. Are ye heavier than a duck, ye suspected WITCH?!?!

        (When you're a King, you have to know about the "science" of such things, ya know.)

      2. we have a process for changing those laws. are you engaged in that process?

        1. No, I'm not a member of the power elite who have access to that process.

          1. then vote for people who will. run for office. lobby congress. there are many ways.

            1. There is no possibility that we will be permitted to elect people who will uphold the rule of law.

      3. The whole point to him transporting 1000 pounds of pot across the country was to sell it illegally at Maryland prices. There would be no money and no point to the whole endeavor of it were already legal.

    2. It's been 147 years since Lysander Spooner's "Vices are Not Crimes" hit the stands. Yet illiterates insist that whatever ban an influence-peddling politician exchanges for votes is a "crime." Now even the blindest of fools can search "Lysander Spooner" +Librivox and hear to a reading of the explanation of the difference. Try it sometime...

      1. Lysander Spooner was the most coherent voice for liberty I have ever heard.

      2. Yet illiterates insist that whatever ban an influence-peddling politician exchanges for votes is a "crime."

        Your charge of illiteracy on the part of others is quite hypocritical. A violation of a criminal statute is a "crime" by definition. That's what the word means. That these things shouldn't be crimes (ie, there should not be criminal statutes prohibiting them) does not mean that they are not crimes.

  7. He didn't check where he lived first?

    1. If you're not going to work through the checkers game of possible consequences through, go big or go home.

      1. go big or go to prison

  8. Does it matter that it is illegal for the devil weed to be on schedule one?
    It has proven medical uses, and thus cannot be a schedule one drug.
    Minor detail, I know, but nation of laws and all that jazz.

    1. Minor detail, I know, but nation of laws and all that jazz.

      OK, Founder.

        1. Yeah, but that wouldn't scan like "OK, Boomer" at all...

  9. Somebody dumb enough to transport a metric ton of marijuana from one end of the country to the other should go to jail for his own safety. Let loose on his own, he'd likely end up dead trying some Darwin Award worthy stunt.

    1. I doubt that it was dumb. Rather, very calculating.

    2. Anyone dumb enough to beg a looter like Trump or Biden to send thugs to kick in doors deserves to the initiation of force he begged for--with extra schadenfreude if the coroner rules it was an honest, good-faith wrong-address mistake.

  10. Yeah, things that are legal in one state may be illegal in another state. Let that be a lesson.

  11. I knew he'd be wearing one of those stupid knit hats before I even saw the photograph. He must have known federal law, so what's his excuse? If he thought he was making a point, he got his wish and can't claim victim status. If he thought he'd get away with it, yeah, weed doesn't make you stupid, not at all.

  12. Texas courts make good and sure no hippies, blacks or latinos get the chance to vote for freedom on a jury. The reason those laws exist is that for 50 years democrats and republicans voted to kill or throw people in prison for trade and production of plant leaves. Those anti-commerce parties are kept alive by ignorant cowardice. It takes no effort to vote Libertarian. Dupes who vote to beg entrenched looter parties to shoot and jail people with hateful socialist laws are the problem.

  13. "But depending on how federal prosecutors choose to exercise their discretion..."

    Now do federal gun laws, as in sound suppressors, barrels shorter than 16", etc. Like the evil Berea said, "show me the man, mother fucker."

  14. i think weed should be legal everywhere in the us, but it isn't. even in states where they've "legalized" it, it is sill illegal federally. so it really isn't legal anywhere. this man knew that transporting 1000 kilos was illegal so i have no sympathy. none. if you blatantly violate the law then you should expect to bear the penalty. you can argue that the penalty is wrong, but it is what it is. there are ways to change the law and you're welcome to engage in that process, but until then the law will be enforced. hopefully the senate will pass the bill out of congress and then it will be legal federally. individual states will still be free to pass laws outlawing it.

    1. How old are you? 13? Your faith in the "process" is touching but pathetic.

      1. How old are you? 13? Your faith in the "process" is touching but pathetic.

        At least he's well educated enough to understand what the words "legal" and "legalized" actually mean, unlike the author.

      2. i never said i have faith in the process. what i said is that we have a rule of law in the country. there are two choices: enforce a particular law or legally revoke it. there is no option c. district attorneys can't pick & choose which laws to enforce as they take an oath to enforce all laws.

        how old are you? why do you support anarchy and lawlessness? do you deny that the dumbass violated the law?

        1. we have a rule of law in the country.

          If you still believe that, you haven't been paying attention at all.

        2. “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

  15. Selling Pot, a Legal Business in Most States

    most states have legalized marijuana businesses

    Neither of those statements is true. If you're going to write on legal issues, perhaps you should take the trouble to learn what these terms actually mean. If you already know, then you should stop being dishonest in your use of them.

  16. Under Federalism, each state gets to make-up its own rules.

    If you don't like the rules in Maryland, don't go to Maryland.

    1. That’s why it’s profitable to take it there.

      1. But it wasn't worth the risk

  17. Re the above, the following seem appropriate:

    1. Biden is unchanged, being a double talking snake oil peddler.
    2. Ditto for any number of others in public life and or holders of public office.
    3. Regarding the possibility of indictment and trial, notwithstanding evidence or prosecutorial antics, it is the jury that actually determines guilt or innocence. Additionally, Jury Nullification remains a most interesting possibility in the event of an actual trial.
    4. Speaking personally, I much prefer good scotch whiskey, Johnny Walker Black being my favorite.
    5. Finally, it seems to me that what might be written in law books, it is the people who ultimately make the law, via jury verdicts. Also, at the risk of displaying extreme ignorance, how come the accused has been held so long without being brought to trial?

  18. Come on Reason!

    While the content of the article is a good read you are pulling the CCN / Fox News crap with your headline.

    The headline implies that he was just doing what is allowed in many states.

    Well, as soon as you transport those drugs across state lines you broke federal law regardless of what state you are taking in from and into.

    If anyone else or business in the states where it is legal transported across state lines they would be facing the same issue.

    But this guy also did this with more than a ton of weed and across multiple state lines.

    -1 for you.

    I hope they do go as light on this guy as possible.

    1. Well, as soon as you transport those drugs across state lines you broke federal law regardless of what state you are taking in from and into.

      He was in violation of federal law even before he transported it between states.

  19. I just did 13 years in federal prison. For someone else’s cannabis. I am consumed with hate. Nothing pleases me more than when a cop puts the gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

    1. At least you have a hobby now.

  20. All because something is legal elsewhere does not give you the right to do it. Marrying children is legal in many third world countries but it is and should be illegal here. The guy knew he was breaking the law but did it anyway for the money - like most criminals. All because you disagree with the law does not mean you can ignore it. Doesn’t work with speeding tickets, shop lifting or tax evasion either. Stop making excuses.

  21. Eastbound and Down, loaded up and trucking!

    1. Happy 420!

      1. Yep, Hitler’s 133rd birthday.

        Happy birthday Hitler!

        1. Misek should be along shortly.

          1. He's still at the party.

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