Pubdate: Wed, 07 Aug 2013
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2013 Missoulian
Author: Kathryn Haake


The medical marijuana businessman who was convicted last spring on 
federal charges of distributing and manufacturing marijuana says he 
was unfairly targeted because of his status as a former University of 
Montana football player and a successful African-American entrepreneur.

Jason Washington broke his post-trial media silence Tuesday in a 
phone interview with the Missoulian from a private prison in Shelby.

"It's been a blatant, mean, ugly attack," he said.

His medical marijuana business, Big Sky Medical Marijuana Dispensary, 
was one of the largest operations in the state, which also made it 
appealing to federal investigators, he said.

And in targeting such a high-profile community member, he contended, 
prosecutors were able to shut the door on Missoula's flourishing 
medical marijuana industry.

"The simple fact is there are still dispensaries in Butte," 
Washington said. "They said this is against federal law ... then why 
are there still dispensaries in the state of Montana and 18 other states?"

Washington argued he isn't some counterculture icon who advocated for 
marijuana by getting high outside on the courthouse steps, but rather 
he's a young entrepreneur who was trying to support a growing family.

He wanted to take advantage of the burgeoning medical marijuana 
industry in Montana and started his business venture in 2010 by 
opening dispensaries in Hamilton and Missoula.

"I couldn't ignore the financial gains for a legitimate businessman," 
Washington said. "That's why I was involved  for the American Dream.

"I would never be involved if it was illegal in the state in Montana," he said.

And the businesses were extremely lucrative.

Washington said the dispensaries had the potential to earn $1 million a year.

He claims he paid his taxes, set up the businesses to comply with 
state and local laws, and cooperated with both municipalities.

As for the federal statute that still treats marijuana as a dangerous 
drug, Washington said he wasn't worried.

"My understanding was the federal government would only come after 
people who were in clear violation of state law," Washington explained.

On Nov. 16, 2011, two of Washington's businesses  the Missoula 
dispensary and his 406 Motoring automotive shop  were raided by law 
enforcement officers.

That followed a Nov. 6 incident in which officers went into the 
Hamilton dispensary and found employee Bradley Bjorkland in 
possession of marijuana. According court documents, Washington was 
aware that Bjorkland had no legal status to possess marijuana under 
the Montana Medical Marijuana Act.

Washington was eventually convicted of three felony charges 
conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, possession with 
intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a firearm in 
furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Two separate charges filed by the Ravalli County Attorney's Office on 
May 7, 2013, were dropped.

Federal prosecutors would have agreed to a plea deal, but Washington 
decided to plead not guilty, believing he was innocent under Montana law.

His attorney, Kwame Manley of Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., agreed.

"I took it to trial because I thought people  Montanans  would stand 
up for Montana laws," he said.

He was certain that a jury of Washington's peers would find him not guilty.

During the trial, though, Washington believes he was intentionally 
painted as an inner-city thug. He said federal prosecutor Tara 
Elliott likened him once to the infamous mobster John Gotti  to which 
Manley objected.

She also played recordings of conversations between Washington and 
his family and friends in California using inner-city slang, again to 
portray him as a dangerous drug dealer, he said.

Washington was sentenced to two years in federal prison  a sentence 
that prosecutors are appealing in hopes of securing a five-year sentence.

"If I could do it all over again, I probably would have taken a plea 
deal," Washington said.

So far, he has spent 99 days of his sentence in three different 
detention facilities and will transfer from Shelby to Nevada at an 
undesignated date in the future. He hopes to spend the remainder of 
his sentence close to his family in California.

After he gets out of prison, Washington plans to bring his 19 new 
business ideas to a state other than Montana.

"When I needed help, Montana didn't stand up for me  not the city, 
not the state, and not the citizens who sat on the jury," he said.
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