Say No To Drug Prosecution: End the War on Drugs With Civil Disobedience

No one enjoys jury duty. Sitting for hours as lawyers poke and pry at your beliefs is about as exciting as waiting in line at the DMV. Jury duty is one of those civic responsibilities touted by high school government teachers that get ignored later in life — except for a jury in Missoula, Mont.

When a pool of prospective jurors were asked by Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul if they would convict a man of marijuana possession, one after another expressed their discontent with the state’s possession laws. After taking a quick poll, District Judge Dusty Deschamps realized he might not be able to sit a jury.

During a recess, prosecutors cut a deal with the defense. The defendant, Touray Cornell, entered an Alford plea in which he did not have to admit guilt but was sentenced to 20 years in prison with 19 years suspended. If he had not also been accused of distributing marijuana – which, unlike possession, is a felony – Cornell could have very easily walked out of the courtroom a free man.

Unless the potential jurors were pulling a stunt to get out of jury duty, their mutinous actions constitute one of the most original acts of political dissent in the war on drugs. Such feats of jury nullification are rare, but should be considered a legitimate means of ending prohibition laws that flood courtrooms with first-time offenders, devour state and federal funds and do nothing to rid the nation of a relatively harmless drug. More than half of the arrests for drug abuse violations are for marijuana, according to the 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Report..

Jury nullification has played a prominent role in American history. In 1735, New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was found not guilty of seditious libel when a jury disobeyed direct orders from a British judge. And in the years leading up to the Civil War, Northern juries prevented slaves from being returned to their owners by not recognizing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

America is a nation of laws, and citizens need to abide by those statutes for the rule of law to have any meaning. However, once a law becomes so corrosive to society, people of conscience must exercise their own moral judgment. Sometimes jurors have to match the defendants’ disobedience of the law with their own disobedience to serve as a corrective in legal proceedings.

Even as thousands of the nation’s most disadvantaged citizens are sentenced for violating marijuana possession laws, politicians continue the same failed policies by declaring a war on drugs. Sweeping reductions in civil rights, such as the right to privacy and due process, are deemed acceptable if they help win this fictitious conflict. For example, decisions handed down by the Supreme Court sanctioned the use of anonymous informants (Illinois v. Gates, 1983) and increased the federal government’s ability to regulate the use of medicinal marijuana (Gonzales v. Raich, 2005).

“There is no other criminal law on the books that is enforced so harshly and pervasively that almost half of Americans don’t think should be a crime in the first place. That’s why (jury nullification) happens,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in an interview with the New York Times.

The nation’s prohibition of marijuana serves so little purpose to winning the war on drugs, jurors should engage in jury nullification to prevent another citizen from being sentenced for merely possessing a couple buds. Of course, most marijuana possession cases end in plea agreements, as seen in the Missoula case, but in the unlikely chance you are asked to serve on a jury deliberating violations of marijuana possession laws, you should vote to acquit, no matter how much evidence is presented.

As a juror, you should use your power to choose justice over man-made laws. The disobedience of conscientious citizens who make this choice will change the nation’s drug laws if legislators do not.

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