I will not be taking a position… at least in this article… on my personal views concerning marijuana laws and the legalization of marijuana. My opinion on that issue means very little. Instead, this article is more about simple justice and changing times. While I refuse to mull over the simple question of why… if we allow the legal sale and use of a substance as deadly and destructive as alcohol… marijuana remains largely illegal …rest assured, however that I will address that in a later article.
In the words/lyrics of the great Bob Dylan, “the times...they are ah changin’” …and while attitudes and laws concerning marijuana use were slow, changes did occur …at least in certain respects…but not soon enough for some. In the summer and early fall of 1980, I would discover that justice, in many instances, was just a word…that sometimes justice had nothing to do with fairness, nothing to do with doing the right thing, or even common sense. In the summer and fall of 1980 I witnessed kids…yes kids…that had just graduated high school and about to enter college (some with academic or athletic scholarships), join the military or workforce …be sentenced to 2 years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary simply for having been in possession of, or who had exchanged or sold but just a few ounces of marijuana. It was my first year of law practice and I, like many of my colleagues, was either retained or appointed to represent a number of those charged. These cases…and there were a great many of them... came about as a result of the efforts of a certain “undercover informant” who had been invited to our area by law enforcement to help fight the then ongoing “war on drugs”. This undercover informant had been charged with drug possession himself, as I recall, in Hamilton County, Tennessee and was doing this undercover work here and elsewhere, in a deal arranged with law enforcement to help get himself out of trouble. During that summer he would come to our area as a mysterious stranger of sorts… and introduce himself as a fun loving young adult with “connections”… impressing our local kids while they gathered …as they habitually did…at various parking lot hangouts and hamburger joints... selling or supplying them with marijuana and then discreetly observe them use it, sell or exchange it among their friends, former classmates, and others they could trust. All the while…and unbeknownst to these kids… this undercover informant was taking down their names in a little black book…several times recording names in error or misidentifying some of the kids altogether. It didn’t matter… not in the eyes of most jurors. When it came down to testimony …it was their word against the undercover informant’s word...and he was a “trusted “representative of law enforcement. Our system of justice that summer and the following months...saw to it that many of those young lives were ruined. That was the attitude in those days. We defense lawyers tried everything…. we pled entrapment, first, fourth, fifth and fourteenth amendment violations. Yes… we pled …and in some cases begged for juries to sympathize with the total and complete absurdity and unfairness of what was happening and give us a “nullification” verdict. Despite our efforts…most trials …most all of the trials resulted in a conviction. Instead of packing up and getting ready for college, starting a first job, or basic training, these kids ...barely 18 years old most of them... were going to jail or prison. Two years in prison and a felony record for life was the “norm” for these “first offender” kids if there had been a “sale” or the amount they possessed was more than a few ounces. Otherwise, it was the county jail for several months and a misdemeanor drug possession record for life. Few received probation without some jail time. Put in simple terms ...the “crime” clearly did not fit the punishment. Yes, those kids “broke the law” but justice was not served. Today, in many states, what those kids did in that summer of 1980 would not be even be considered an offense. Even in Tennessee many of those same kids today would be looking at a small fine and, if any jail time at all, it will likely be minimal and more importantly … if a kid is a first offender, his or her record can be expunged. I’ve often wondered about those kids …most would be in there 50’s now…. what became of them? I wondered how they managed afterwards…. the change had not come fast enough…not for any of them.