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Baltimore Drug Trial Reflects Divisions Over Federal Pot Cases

In his closing arguments to a Baltimore jury on Friday, federal prosecutor Anatoly Smolkin, declared what U.S. v. Jonathan Wall was not about: “This is not a case about marijuana possession. This is a case about a drug conspiracy,” about an operation that shipped “massive amounts” of weed in return for “enormous money.” Defense lawyer Jason Flores-Williams begged to differ. “It’s about pot,” he said. The case, one of a shrinking number of federal criminal prosecutions concerning the trafficking of marijuana, reflected the lack of a national legal consensus on pot, reports the New York Times. Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 18 states and legal for medical use in 37, a multibillion-dollar industry in states all over the political spectrum. At the federal level, it is still classified as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin and LSD. Presidential administrations have sent memos about the priority of marijuana prosecutions only to have them rescinded by successors. While a bill to decriminalize marijuana passed in the House of Representatives, it faces long odds in the Senate.

Wall, a white 27-year-old who grew up in the Baltimore suburbs, is neither a tycoon of the booming legal cannabis industry nor an emblem of the racial inequities in low-level drug prosecutions. He has spent nearly two years in prison awaiting trial on charges of helping run a cross-country marijuana distribution operation, which carries a mandatory sentence of 10 years to life. Since his arrest, he has become something of a celebrity among marijuana advocates, libertarians and supporters of criminal justice reform, the subject of long profiles in several magazines. “No one should go to prison, especially for long periods of time, for this, and especially when companies are operating on such a large sale and profiting from the exact same thing,” says a Wall backer, former racecar driver Randy Lanier. Having spent decades in prison for marijuana smuggling, Lanier is now a brand ambassador for a publicly traded cannabis company. Ninety percent of federal charges result in guilty pleas without trial, and federal trials involving marijuana are becoming rarer still. The number of federal prosecutions of marijuana trafficking has plummeted, falling under 1,000 last year.

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