Pubdate: Mon, 30 Mar 2015
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2015 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: JC Cortez


Three men arrested in recent weeks could get life in prison after 
being caught with small amounts of edible marijuana products, a fact 
that has sparked an outcry from some Amarillo residents.

Potter County sheriff's deputies arrested Eli McCarthy Manna, 30, and 
Andrew Bruce George, 27, after stopping them for an unspecified 
traffic violation March 16.

The men were found to be in possession of seven purple brownies 
weighing a total of 650 grams which, being more than 400 grams, 
triggered the most severe punishment range for drug possession under 
Texas law - 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

Ten days later, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers arrested 
Fernando Bejarano, 19, of Tulsa, Okla., after stopping him on an 
unspecified traffic violation.

Troopers found more than 800 grams of prepackaged baked goods and 
candies containing THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The products included assorted Edipure gummies and vanilla 
chai-flavored Kiva mini chocolates, which are available over the 
counter where such products are legal. He was booked into Potter 
County jail on the same charge as Manna and George.

"The fact of the matter is people are getting arrested in the 
counties in the Panhandle on a regular basis for doing very little 
"'bad,' even according to our own laws - and nothing wrong according 
to the laws of Colorado and many other states,"  Amarillo lawyer Jeff 
Blackburn said. "This is nonsense; these are not serious felonies."

Blackburn is known for being the founder and chief council of the 
Innocence Project of Texas and for his work leading to the 
exoneration of 35 people who were wrongly convicted in a 1999 drug 
bust in Tulia and eventually pardoned by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

The high-stakes charges stem from the treatment of marijuana-infused 
foods as controlled substances - similar to cocaine and 
methamphetamine - and a section of Texas law that incorporates the 
volume of "adulterants and diluents"  into the total volume of 
controlled substances.

For example, if a person possessed less than 2 ounces of marijuana, 
that person would face a Class B misdemeanor under Texas law, which 
carries a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

But if that person cooks the same amount of marijuana with 4 sticks 
of butter, that person then possesses about 454 grams of a controlled 
substance - enough to warrant a life sentence under Texas law.

A shop three hours from Amarillo in Trinidad, Colo., sells one 
popular chocolate bar containing THC for about $20, the shopkeeper 
said. The bars weigh 45 grams. Less than 10 of those chocolate bars 
could land a Texan in prison for a mandatory minimum of 10 years.

"When you mix cocaine with anything or meth with anything or PCP, or 
any of the Schedule 1 drugs, we weigh it and its adulterants as a 
single product ... the strength level does not matter,"  Trooper 
Daniel Hawthorne said during an interview Friday.

"In other words, if you take one drop of hash oil and put it in a 
gallon of water, you're going to be charged with a gallon of a 
controlled substance,"  Blackburn said. "That is just medieval and 
stupid. ... This is where the law in Texas becomes hyper-technical 
and very repressive."

On Friday, Hawthorne recalled stopping a van while on patrol years 
ago. Men in the van possessed a small vial with an unknown amount of 
PCP, he said. As they were being pulled over, the men panicked and 
dumped the vial into a cooler.

When DPS investigators drained the PCP and melted ice mixture from 
the cooler and measured the volume, the men faced a charge of 
possession of 4 gallons of PCP.

Law enforcement is unable to separate food particles from drug 
particles, Hawthorne said. The number of variables and the complexity 
of the task would make the law so cumbersome it would be virtually 
unenforceable, he said.

"The reason it's that way is ... it would be impossible to set up a 
scale where you estimated the THC per weight of - whatever,"  he said.

Amarillo activist Shane Cox, founder of Amarillo Cannabis Culture, a 
group dedicated to the legalization of and education about marijuana, 
said he is outraged by the law.

"To receive a life sentence for a plant that has never been linked to 
an overdose, is safer than alcohol, is used medically in 23 states 
and is legal for recreational use in four states and in Washington, 
D.C. - it's ridiculous,"  he said. "Sugar in the brownies has caused 
more deaths in this country than the cannabis."

Despite any personal feelings, Hawthorne said, police are bound by 
oath to uphold the laws where they practice.

"The fact that it's become socially acceptable in some areas ... has 
no effect on us,"  Hawthorne said, "I don't have the authority to 
make judgment calls. That's for a judge to do, not me. That's for a 
jury to do."

Blackburn disagreed.

"Cops are not robots. Prosecutors are not robots,"  he said. "Law 
enforcement has a lot of discretion in how they treat people, and DAs 
have a lot in how they handle these cases when they get to court."

Texas law allows law enforcement agencies to ticket people for 
misdemeanor possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana, instead of 
making arrests.

Amarillo Police Department does not issue citations for marijuana 
possession. Potter County deputies are allowed the choice to issue 
citations instead of making an arrest, Lt. Patrick Zamora said. In 
2014, Potter County deputies issued three citations for Class B 
misdemeanor marijuana possession, or in about 13 percent of cases.

"I do not believe that most taxpayers, even in the Panhandle, are in 
favor of this hyper-repressive approach to marijuana laws," Blackburn 
said. "I think the verdict in the Tim Stevens case ... is a pretty 
good example."

An Amarillo jury acquitted Tim Stevens, a then-53-year-old HIV 
patient, in 2008 after he was charged with possession of marijuana he 
used to control chronic nausea and vomiting. It was the first 
medical-use acquittal in Texas, Blackburn said, and took the jury 
only 12 minutes of deliberation.

"If you can over-charge people, you can over-convict them. And if you 
over-convict them, you over-punish them,"  Blackburn said. "oeEvery 
single one of us has an interest in not letting the government run amok."
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