Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wall
Cannabis is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, but not everyone can have a piece of the pie.
While some Americans are profiting off of the new green economy, others are serving and facing lengthy sentences for the same activities.
Cannabis related arrests in the U.S. account for more arrests than all violent crime arrests combined. Additionally, nearly half of all drug related arrests are for cannabis, according to the ACLU.
Cannabis is a Schedule I Controlled Substance. This means the federal government considers it to have the highest potential for abuse and no medicinal value.
Ironically, drugs like ketamine, cocaine, fentanyl, OxyContin and methamphetamine are scheduled lower than cannabis.
Charges involving Schedule I and II drugs have the most severe punishments under the law.
Jonathan Wall is just one of many who face life sentences for cannabis in America.
In October 2019, Wall was indicted and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.
Wall, and his co-conspirators, allegedly transported over 1000 kilograms of cannabis from California to Maryland over the course of two years.
Wall worked in California’s legal cannabis industry when he was charged. His plan was to start his own company in the cannabis industry, according to Jason Flores-Williams, Wall’s attorney.
After learning of the charges against him, Wall fled to Guatemala, but later surrendered. Due to this, Wall is not eligible for temporary release through a bond.
Wall faces ten years to life in prison if convicted. His trial will take place on May 2, 2022 in Baltimore.
Wall denied a plea deal and plans to fight alongside his attorney for justice.
“I respect him for saying no, I am not going to go along with the plan here. I am going to exercise my rights and go to trial despite being in some of the worst conditions you could imagine,” Flores-Williams told Emerald.
The Gray Area
Wall’s case falls in a unique gray-area that only federal legalization or rescheduling can solve. Wall faces federal charges that are less severe when tried at the state level, Flores-Williams explains.
Maryland decriminalized possession of cannabis in 2014. There is also current legislation to legalize recreational cannabis in Maryland, which Flores-Williams says will pass by the end of 2022.
If Flores-Williams and Wall beat this case it will set a national precedent.
They hope to find that Americans are no longer willing to send people to prison for cannabis.
“There is a difference between justice and the law, and our hope is that the jury sees that and they bring a verdict that is one of justice and not simply one of blind obedience,” Flores-Williams said.
The War on Drugs
Wall is not the first victim of The War on Drugs, but Flores-Williams hopes he will be one of the last.
“The US government has been wrong, deeply wrong, in regards to US federal prohibition. […] You can go down to a strip mall and buy an assault rifle and a fifth of whiskey legally, but you
can’t go buy pot. And, if you are found with pot you are going to go to prison and be put in a cage,” Flores-Wiliams said.
Flores-Williams theorizes that the War on Drugs was a way for the federal government to incarcerate the counter-culture. At the time this targeted hippies, minorities and immigrants, he explained.
Today, The War on Drugs continues to deeply impact families while benefiting law enforcement.
“My family was just destroyed by the war on drugs. My father got sentenced to 35 years in prison, and my mother and sister and I were thrown under the bus of poverty. So, I can attest to what it does to families, children, and the generations of pain and suffering and damage that it has caused,” he said.
Additionally, taxpayer dollars fund The US War on Drugs. The Last Prisoner Project estimates that the War on Drugs costs $47 billion annually. In 2010, states alone spent $3.6 billion enforcing cannabis possession laws, according to an ACLU report.
“Law enforcement is completely dependent upon the resources and income that are generated by the US War on Drugs,” Flores-Williams explained.
The Larger Issues at Hand
It is also important to note the evident racial bias in cannabis law enforcement.
Cannabis arrests statistics highlight the disproportionate effect that cannabis policing has on minority and marginalized populations.
Data from 2018 shows that Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. This is despite the fact that White and Black populations report using cannabis at the same rate.
Balck and Latinx Americans make up a large portion of the over 40,000 cannabis prisoners in the United States.
These prisoners lie in the gray-area between state and federal law as states continue to legalize and decriminalize cannabis.
“The courts are supposed to be a place of justice, but over time they have become a place of simply the law. There are often times in our history where law has nothing to do with justice. The law is in conflict with justice, for example the Civil Rights Movement,” Flores-Williams said.
The current state of the law leaves defendants like Wall fighting for their freedom, while others make millions.
“Adding to the insanity is the economic aspect of it. You’ve got corporations who are making millions of dollars engaging in the exact same activity that Jonathan Wall was allegedly taking part in,” Flores-Williams said.
Flores-Williams is not alone in his frustration with this criminal injustice and the hypocrisy of the current situation.
Nonprofits such as the Last Prisoner Project and CAN-DO are working to free cannabis prisoners and implement criminal justice reform. They also work to support families affected by cannabis incarceration.
One small step towards reform could be the rescheduling of cannabis. For Wall and many others, this would result in time served and immediate release, according to Flores-Williams.
These nonprofits work to federally decriminalized cannabis and the release of non-violent offenders.
During his campaign, President Biden promised voters that he would implement these reforms.
“Biden used the issue to get elected, but he won’t actually do it. Voters aren’t going to keep putting up with this from politicians,” Flores-Williams said.
Federal legalization of recreational cannabis would also stop the incarceration of cannabis offenders. For those already incarcerated, cannabis reform legislation including a retroactive release clause would guarantee their release.
The perpetuation of the War on Drugs and criminalization of cannabis is not due to public support. Less than 10% of Americans agree that cannabis should not be legal in any form, according to Pew Research.
However, this has not resulted in meaningful federal action or reform. So, then will the jury in Wall’s case follow the letter of the law or advocate for change?
“Courts have become a place where it becomes almost impossible to argue and present the bigger picture of what’s happening in society […] this is not a War on Drugs, it’s a war on people,” Flores-Williams said.