A 26-year-old Maryland native faces 15 years in federal prison there on marijuana conspiracy charges.
As some entrepreneurs stand to make millions in the cannabis industry, inconsistent marijuana laws can land people like Jonathan Wall in prison for years.
Drug policy experts say people will languish in this "gray area" if weed isn't legalized nationwide.
Jonathan Wall, a 26-year-old Maryland native, has been locked up in a Baltimore maximum security prison for nearly a year as he awaits trial on federal marijuana conspiracy charges.
Prosecutors say Wall, along with 10 others, transported over 1000 kilograms of cannabis from California to Maryland over two years. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 15 years in federal prison.
Wall told Insider he simply saw an opportunity to make a living. After dropping out of high school and spending some time couch-surfing, he moved to California six years ago to join a growing cannabis industry he'd felt passionate about since he was a teenager.
"There are so many people who dedicated and essentially donated their life to getting this plant to where it is today, on the verge of legalization," Wall told Insider by phone from the detention facility. "Do I have to be the last person who is prosecuted for a product that's making billions of dollars around the world?"
Inconsistent marijuana laws between the states and on the federal level can land offenders in prison for years, even as some entrepreneurs stand to make millions working legally in the same industry. Drug policy experts told Insider that if marijuana isn't legalized nationwide, people like Wall will continue to languish in what they describe as a "gray area" of the law.
Going on the lam
Wall was indicted in October 2019 on charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana. Wall knew some of the 10 other men named in the indictment, but not everyone, according to his lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams.
Flores-Williams said Wall was working to launch a marijuana company in California, where he was growing cannabis, when he learned of the charges against him and fled to Guatemala.
"It was just a moment of like, 'I can't believe this,' and looking at the injustice of the prosecution and unequal way that laws are being applied, he split," Flores-Williams told Insider. "So he went down to Guatemala and just started a food drive for people who were hungry."
Wall ultimately decided to turn himself in to police and boarded a flight back to Los Angeles International Airport. When he arrived on June 29, 2020, he says he was met by law enforcement officers from a variety of federal agencies who took him into custody.
"I was on the plane, on the tarmac. It was ridiculous how they brought on a whole military platoon to apprehend me," Wall told Insider. "They knew I was coming in. I understood the process of what would happen, and they still thought it was necessary to bring in the Customs and Border Patrol, the DEA, US Marshals, all these different agencies."
Wall's family is now living "a nightmare," Flores-Williams says, worrying every night about his safety at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. Wall was one of 150 inmates there who tested positive for COVID-19 last year, according to Flores-Williams.
"They are emblematic of what so many people have faced in this country for generations," he said. "This family is just completely torn apart because of this government's focus on the drug war."
Getting caught in the 'gray area'
There's growing acceptance of legal marijuana in the United States. As of November 2020, 35 states and Washington, DC, had passed or voted to pass medical marijuana access laws, while 15 states and Washington, DC, had passed or voted to pass recreational marijuana access laws.But the drug remains illegal at the federal level.
Queen Adesuyi, the policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance, which works to advance policies that limit the harms of drug use and prohibition, told Insider that Wall's case shows why marijuana needs to be descheduled on the federal level.
"People should not be in cages because of cannabis," Adesuyi told Insider. "It's odd to have people sitting in cages because of marijuana while plenty of people are making a great profit in the cannabis industry and the industry itself is gonna be valued in the billions of dollars as reform continues to progress."
A majority of people impacted by marijuana laws enter the criminal justice system on state charges for possession or sale of the drug, but violations of federal marijuana law often carry harsher penalties, according to Adesuyi.
She said it's important for drug policy advocates to continue to fight for legalization on the state level, but "until it's removed from the controlled substance list, people are going to be caught up in the in betweens, in the gray area that we're in, because of the discrepancy between state laws and federal law."
Flores-Williams noted he's representing a client who, if convicted, could receive a longer sentence than some defendants face for rape or murder charges.
"Right now there is this profound inconsistency in this country," he said. "I go to court in Maryland, and then just 40 miles down the road you've got a 72,000 square foot warehouse that's rented out for the next 20 years because someone was smart enough to buy it and convert it into a pot grow and rent it out."
Maryland allows medical marijuana, but recreational weed use and sales remain illegal in the state.
Flores-Williams filed a motion in federal court arguing that prosecuting Wall is unconstitutional because every citizen should have equal rights under the law, but a judge denied it. The US Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland didn't return a message seeking comment on Wall's case.
Flores-Williams, who says his father was incarcerated on drug charges when he was a child, is intimately familiar with the effects of the war on drugs. The side work the Colorado-based defense lawyer does assisting venture capitalists in obtaining marijuana cultivation and distribution licensing only deepens his conviction that clients like Wall are being unfairly punished.
"So I am in a situation where I get off the phone with Jonathan - and this has happened - and the next phone call is from somebody in Nevada who is looking to invest $1.5 million into a cannabis corporation based here in Colorado, that is expanding into Mexico," Flores-Williams said. "Now these are the exact same activities."
'The whole war on pot, it goes on and on'
Richard Stratton, a New York City-based writer and filmmaker, was at home sitting as his desk last year when he got a LinkedIn message from Wall, who he had never met.
Stratton had been sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1982 for importing marijuana into the United States. He was released in 1990 after a successful appeal and went on to write several books about the experience. Stratton consulted on the HBO series "Oz" and the Emmy-winning documentary "Thug Life," and had his own show, "Street Time," for two seasons on Showtime.
Wall wrote that he had just finished reading Stratton's book, "Smuggler's Blues: A True Story of the Hippie Mafia," and needed advice. Wall wanted to come home but feared returning and being prosecuted, Stratton said.
"Ultimately I advised him to give himself up because I could see it was not going to end well for him down there," Stratton told Insider. "He was running out of money. It was a bad situation. So I spoke with his lawyer in San Francisco, before Jason came on the case, and convinced Jonathan to surrender and come back and face the music."
Stratton said he believes America has made significant progress in legalizing marijuana since he was convicted, but there's still a long way to go.
"You really have to wonder why our government to spending all this money to capture a guy in a foreign country, bring him back here, charge him with these crimes that are crimes only in some states and not another states, to put this kid in prison for however many years on cannabis violations," he said. "It's just nuts. The whole war on pot, it goes on and on and on, and it doesn't make sense."
But Wall is not the average American locked up on marijuana charges, Stratton said, speaking from his own experience.
"This case is talking about dealing pot, and smuggling pot, and transporting pot across state lines. But by and large, the people who get arrested for cannabis violations are Black and brown Americans, not white," Stratton said. "Our prisons are full of people of color."
Wall acknowledges that prohibitions on marijuana disproportionately impact communities of color. More than 600,000 people in the United States were charged for possessing marijuana in 2018, Insider reported at the time. Blacks and Latinos accounted for nearly half of all weed arrests that year, despite making up just 31% of the population, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
Relief efforts for marijuana offenders
Flores-Williams, who also represents legal cannabis distributors, said he understands the need to regulate the industry.
"If you don't get the license that other people are busting their butt to get, if you don't follow the specific protocols and rules set up by municipalities and states with regards to cannabis, then I understand there should be penalties for that," Flores-Williams said. "But you should not be looking at 15 years in federal prison. That's the bottom line."
Stratton, who by a twist of fate served time in prison with Flores-Williams' father, agrees.
"I think that the reality is that ultimately you will have a license, you will have a permit, you will have some kind of a federal license to deal in cannabis. That's where we're headed," Stratton said.
"In the meantime, it doesn't make any sense to me to be locking people up and having them spend 10 or 20 or 30 years in prison for something that is now rapidly becoming legal all over the country," he added.
Adesuyi is part of a working group that is focused drafting what federal regulations on cannabis could look like after it's decriminalized on the national level.
Under the framework Adesuyi imagines, the allegations against Wall, if proven true, would result in the equivalent of a permit violation.
"I would hope that something like that is not treated on a criminal level, because these policies disproportionately impact Black and brown communities and Black and brown people the most," she said. "I know this case was about someone who was a little more middle-class and had a little bit more access to resources, but the story behind the people who have really bore the brunt of decriminalization is that of low-income black and brown people."
Adesuyi noted public support for both legalization and expunging the records of people who've already served time for possession or sale of the drug is at an all-time high. A Pew research survey published in April shows that 91% of Americans believe marijuana should be legal in some form; of them, 60% believe it should be legal for recreational and medical use.
In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would remove cannabis from the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The act has language that, if passed by the Senate, would also create a pathway for expungement of marijuana convictions. The legislation hasn't come up for a vote in that chamber yet, but it was reintroduced in late May.
Adesuyi pointed out the MORE Act has exceptions: People who were convicted at the "kingpin" level, including individuals who were found to have trafficked large amounts of marijuana, would not be eligible for expungement. (Stratton was convicted on charges of this level, while the charges against Wall don't meet that threshold).
"It's unfair to continually allow for lifelong cost consequences to follow a person after they've already served their time, and it's an unfair kind of dichotomy that policy makers continue to put in place between low level and high level offenders." Adesuyi said. "In order to really get to criminal justice reform, we have to grapple with the dichotomy of non-violent versus violent, and low-level versus high-level, to really get to the crux of the fact that people shouldn't be in jail or prison because of cannabis."
Beyond expunging marijuana convictions, there are efforts underway to reverse policies that lock out past offenders from the booming cannabis industry.
In the early days of legalization, if he were convicted on the charges against him, Wall would not have been eligible to work in the industry again. Now some jurisdictions give licensing priority to past offenders - a move aimed at assisting the communities most impacted by drug laws, according to Justin Strekal, the political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"There has been a rapid and welcome shift in policymaking when it comes to ensuring that those who have been previously arrested for cannabis-related infractions not only be permitted to operate in the legal market, but to ensure that they have guaranteed access to licensure and capital to benefit from the economic opportunities with the regulated market," Strekal said. "Put simply, people who have been harmed by criminalization deserve to benefit from legalization."
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