If drugs are it, acquit

The “war on drugs” seems just about as successful as the one on “terror.” Instead of a decrease in drug use and a drop in addiction rates, we see more Americans (one out of every 100) imprisoned. People like Chico’s Brian Epis, convicted for growing pot plants, do not belong in jail. Neither do most other casualties of the “drug war.”

Californians know this. We’ve attempted to create more humane drug laws, as in the provisions of Proposition 36, allowing for treatment rather than incarceration, and our decision under Proposition 215 to allow the use of marijuana by patients with a prescription.

But as the federal government and local law enforcement continue to show no respect for California’s decision to decriminalize the medical use of marijuana, it’s time for citizens to take action.

The creators of the award-winning television series The Wire recently called for an unusual step. Noting the high rate of incarceration in America, the disparity in sentencing among races and social classes and the resources spent chasing drug convictions rather than being used to make our cities safer, they’ve called for citizens to engage in “jury nullification.”

Ed Burns, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price and David Simon all vow that, when seated on a jury “deliberating a violation of state or federal drug laws, we will vote to acquit, regardless of the evidence presented.”

Quite sensibly, they make exception for cases that involve violence. But if the defendant is charged with a drug offense—and a drug offense only—they will “nullify” the law by acquitting.

Jury nullification, an old concept in the history of U.S. law, remains the last option when the laws themselves are unjust and the government has refused to alter them.

In California, this means most specifically the continued prosecution of citizens for growing, distributing and using marijuana for medical purposes. It is obscene for the government to continue prosecuting ill people for using a drug to make their lives more comfortable. All drug offenses can sensibly fall into the same category.

We’ll happily convict a defendant who used guns to protect his stash or who stole from a neighbor to get her fix. But recreational use is no threat to society, and addiction is a disease better treated outside prison.

If the legislative and executive branches don’t care enough about the welfare of our citizens to change the drug laws, we can use our involvement in the judicial branch and refuse to enforce them.