One man’s story about giving up his 10th amendment rights in order to make a deal with the federal government.
Losing my 10th Amendment Rights with Medical Marijuana
During the fall of 2012, I faced the most difficult decision of my life. Either go to trial in federal court, and risk spending the rest of my life behind bars, or take a plea deal and risk a much shorter sentence. Even today I am often explaining why I took the risk and went to trial, which is like going to war against the federal government. At the core of my personality and the heart of my beliefs; I am idealistic and stubborn, which affected my decision. In reality it was much more than just that. The essence of my battle was my disagreement with the Supreme Court’s ruling, [Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S (2005)], which I believe is conceptually weak and limits the structure of the 10th amendment of the United States Constitution, and is ripe to be overturned by the Supreme Court.
I was optimistic and had grand visions of an acquittal by jury or a win in appellate court or the Supreme Court. However the odds and system were against me, just as they are for everyone prosecuted by the federal government. The conviction rate in federal court is over 95%. There are many reasons why the federal conviction rate is so high. I think the primary issues are overcharging by prosecutors and the fact that there is no prosecutorial oversight. The difficulties in my defense were due to the ruling in the Raich case. This eliminated my ability to use the state law as a defense or even mention the words medical marijuana during my trial, even though I operated a state legal medical marijuana company.
You may not realize that the Gonzales v. Raich case establishes federal jurisdiction to regulate interstate drug activity via the controlled substances act. This is the law of the land and it trumps the 10th amendment of the United States Constitution. Even if a medical marijuana provider is obeying all state laws they can be prosecuted by the federal government. I faced an uphill battle to argue against the Supreme Court’s ruling, even though, like many others, I disagreed with their interpretation of the issue. As a citizen if the United States I felt that it was my duty to fight for my rights in court.
What happened? I was found guilty of all charges against me. The outcome was dire. I faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 85 years in federal prison. You may not realize that there is no parole in the federal prison system, and I would serve almost all of the time, which would equate to a life sentence. I operated our medical marijuana company, Montana Cannabis, in strict compliance with Montana’s Medical Marijuana Act. However, compliance with state law is no defense in federal court. Even though the Montana Medical Marijuana Act was very vague and poorly drafted, we obeyed it strictly. Unfortunately, no matter how you argue the facts, marijuana is still illegal under the federal controlled substances act.
The outpouring of public support saved me. After my guilty verdict, people from across the nation came to my rescue. Thousands of support letters flooded the judges office. The New York Times published a video article about my case, and soon a petition to president Obama demanding my pardon gained over 30,000 signatures, in less than a month. Not long after the judge in my case took rare actions which allowed me access to a post verdict negotiation. A separate federal judge was assigned to mediate the negotiations. The tension of the negotiation filled the air. After many hours we reached an agreement, I had to give up my rights to appeal and to fight my case, in exchange my sentence was reduced to 64 months in federal prison.
You may be thinking, “how does this affect me?” If you are involved in the cannabis industry, you better believe it does! Since my trial several states have legalized recreational marijuana use as well as medical marijuana use. But still, federal law has not changed. You must understand, just because the current president has made policy changes that relax enforcement, does not mean that the controlled substances act has been changed. I am currently in prison with medical marijuana growers who were growing less than 50 plants in small cooperatives. Lance Gloor was recently sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for his state legal medical marijuana operation in Washington state. No matter what the size operation, the federal prosecutors can still enforce federal marijuana laws. This year we will elect a new president, and she or he could change federal policy towards marijuana. It could go either direction, more freedom or more restrictions. Federal law enforcement officers and federal prosecutors wait to attack when policies change.
According to the United States Supreme Court and congress, marijuana is a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, in the same category as heroin and crack cocaine. This classification makes it illegal for any purpose. Current presidential policy offers some leeway to states that enact their own laws and regulate cannabis as the citizens see fit. This limits your exposure to federal prosecution, but does not eliminate your risks. You must obey a complex and confusing federal policy and obey state laws, but still you have no guarantees. The Supreme Court ruling in Raich v. Gonzales establishes the precedent that should make you worry. It is important to know the scope of your risks and mitigate them. I have learned through my experience in federal court, which enables me to analyze this process, that otherwise I would know nothing about. I hope that you find my experience useful and valuable.
By Chris Williams