Here come the feds

Director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice
A fascinating trial is under way in this community and the constitutional issues at stake are much more important than the political storm surrounding the Pledge of Allegiance ruling. The federal government is trying to throw a man named James Epis in jail for 10 years, and the government is going to extraordinary lengths to win the case at all costs. Every citizen should pay close attention to what the feds are trying to pull here.

Epis is accused of being a “marijuana dealer” and faces a minimum term of 10 years in prison. Epis would like to have an opportunity to persuade the jury that he only sells marijuana to people who are seriously ill, but the government has stopped him from raising that legal defense.

As most people know, in November 1996 California voters approved an initiative measure that allows people who are seriously ill to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes. Federal officials lobbied against that measure, but the voters approved it anyway. Last year, the Supreme Court made it clear that whatever may be the law in the various states, in federal marijuana prosecutions, the trial judge can stop the person who is accused of a crime from mentioning in court why he possessed or used marijuana. The Court reasoned that because the federal law did not have any “medical use” exception to its criminal ban on drug possession, any discussion of a compassionate motive could be deemed “irrelevant” to the case. If a defense attorney so much as mentions the “medical” subject in front of the jury, the judge can throw him or her in jail for contempt of court.

The federal prosecutor in the case is also upset about the protesters who have been gathering around the courthouse. The protesters have been holding up signs in an attempt to alert jurors about the harsh 10-year penalty that Epis is facing. Prosecutors don’t like all the attention the case is receiving and want to keep the penalty information away from the jury because it might affect their deliberations.

The federal prosecutor has also complained to the judge about the news articles that have appeared. The articles have been “negative to the government,” he sniffed.

This little trial is fascinating because it shows the lengths to which the federal government will go to enforce its draconian drug laws. Keep the jury in the dark as much as possible, arrest peaceful protesters, and demand “favorable” news coverage about the whole thing.