Medical pot use backer gets jail

February 27, 2003

Danny Walsh, Sacramento Bee,

Angry that a medical marijuana activist blames a fellow judge for disrupting a major pot trial in Sacramento federal court, a magistrate judge sent the activist to prison for three months Thursday. Jeff Jones, a nationally known champion of medical marijuana, was found guilty at a non-jury trial in December of attempting to influence the trial of fellow medical pot advocate Bryan Epis. U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski ordered Jones, 38, to pay restitution of $3,925, the cost of bringing the first prospective jurors to court for the Epis trial. All 42 were disqualified and a second panel convened by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who was convinced that material handed out by Jones and other protesters to members of the first group as they walked toward the courthouse contaminated the entire pool. Jones' attorney, Michael Bigelow, set off Nowinski and caused him to reconsider his inclination to impose straight probation by arguing that it was not necessary to dismiss the jury pool. Damrell acted out of "pique, rather than reason," Bigelow wrote in objecting to nearly $4,000 in restitution. "Had it been the defense complaining of potential bias instead of the government, the court would have questioned the prospective jurors and picked a jury from among those who had not been exposed to the material," Bigelow argued Thursday in court. "That would have benefited only Mr. Jones," Nowinski retorted. "There is no acceptance of responsibility here. He is virtually thumbing his nose at the system." Jones, who has no prior criminal record, was the only one charged among a number of protesters and pickets drawn to the federal courthouse last year for Epis' trial. Jones is an icon of the medical marijuana movement, having headed for a number of years the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, which took the cause to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost. The high court ruled that medical necessity is no defense to a federal drug charge. In a memorandum signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Samantha Spangler, the government conceded "there was other activity occurring outside the courthouse on the date in question," but argued that "Mr. Jones' conduct was egregious. He stood on the courthouse steps distributing pamphlets specifically targeting" prospective jurors. Outraged by Bigelow's argument that Damrell acted precipitously, Nowinski directed that Jones be taken into custody immediately. He then relented, and ordered him to surrender Monday. Every time Bigelow said the words "medical marijuana," Nowinski cut him off. "This case isn't about medical marijuana," he told the defense attorney. "It's about the integrity of the jury system." Thursday's stormy proceedings are just the latest misery left in the wake of the Epis prosecution. Epis, 35 and the father of an 8-year-old daughter, was the moving force behind a cannabis buyers club in Chico. He was found guilty by a jury in July of growing marijuana, and Damrell sentenced him to a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison. The conviction is on appeal. The case became a rallying point for medical marijuana proponents nationwide, who view it as the ultimate injustice to come from the chasm between California's Compassionate Use Act, mandated by the voters' passage of a 1996 ballot initiative, and the federal government's zero-tolerance stand. About the Writer--------------------------- The Bee's Denny Walsh can be reached at (916) 321-1189 or dwalsh@sacbee.com.

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