Pubdate: Wed, 14 Oct 2015
Source: Asbury Park Press (NJ)
Copyright: 2015 Asbury Park Press
Author: Ken Wolski
Note: Ken Wolski is executive director of the Coalition for Medical 
Marijuana -New Jersey.


America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. President 
Obama recently said the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world's 
population, but has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. What is 
creating this Incarceration Nation is the War on Drugs, nearly half 
of which is a war on marijuana. More precisely, it is a war on people 
who use marijuana.

Take, for example, the case of Jon Peditto, whose marijuana trial is 
scheduled to begin on Oct. 20 in Toms River. Peditto was found by law 
enforcement officers to be growing 17 marijuana plants. For this 
non-violent crime he faces 31 1/2 years in state prison.

The jury will not be told how long a prison term Peditto will serve 
if they find him guilty. The jury will only be asked to say, "Guilty" 
or, "Not guilty."

Peditto uses marijuana instead of alcohol. It helps him to relax 
after a stressful day at work. He believes marijuana is a healthier 
alternative for him than having a few drinks. He also shares the 
marijuana he grows with a few adult friends.

Is this a crime that is worth 31 1/2 years in prison?

What if Peditto, or some of the people that he shared his marijuana 
with, had legitimate medical problems that only marijuana could help, 
but they did not qualify under the state's very restrictive medicinal 
marijuana program? It is unlikely that the judge would allow such 
testimony. Other New Jersey judges have forbidden such a defense.

John Wilson was arrested a few years ago in Somerset County for also 
growing 17 marijuana plants that he used to treat his multiple 
sclerosis. The judge did not permit Wilson to tell the jury that the 
only reason he grew marijuana was to treat his incurable disease. 
Wilson was found guilty and was sent to prison.

In the case of Edward Forchion in Burlington County, the judge 
refused to allow jurors to hear, among other things, that Forchion 
used marijuana as part of his sincere religious belief. Forchion was 
found guilty of marijuana possession and he was incarcerated.

Is it surprising that there are so many drug convictions when judges 
refuse to permit juries to hear a person's only defense?

In 2013, the state Department of Corrections reported that the cost 
to house an inmate for one year was $53,000. Taxpayers will spend 
$1.66 million to keep Peditto locked up for 31 years and six months. 
That's not counting the cost of the investigation that discovered the 
plants, the numerous - and ongoing -hours by the 15 officers involved 
in the arrest and trial, or the court costs, which include the cost 
of a Public Defender.

Peditto reports that he had a "nervous breakdown" in jail following 
his arrest. If he continues to have such problems during his decades 
of incarceration, he will receive regular visits by psychiatrists who 
will prescribe expensive psychotropic drugs. The state will be 
obliged to treat him for a problem that he did not have before he was 
incarcerated. The costs to house and treat Peditto will skyrocket. If 
Peditto survives prison, he will probably not find gainful employment 
again and he will be a burden on taxpayers for the rest of his life.

Somehow, all of these costs are justified by the crime that Peditto 
committed - gardening without a license. It's true - growing 
marijuana in New Jersey is not strictly forbidden. The Department of 
Health issues licenses to grow marijuana as part of its medical 
marijuana program. Peditto's crime really was growing marijuana 
without a license.

The jury will never hear any of this.

To counter this waste of resources, the New Jersey Municipal 
Prosecutors Association has endorsed the taxation, regulation and 
legalization of marijuana for adults. Surveys show that more than 50 
percent of all Americans now support legalization of marijuana. 
Marijuana may well be legal here in a few years, but not soon enough 
to help Peditto.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1902, "The jury 
has the power to bring a verdict in the teeth of both law and fact." 
Jurors can refuse to bring in a "Guilty" verdict even if all the 
facts and evidence in the case point to guilt. Judges in New Jersey 
will instruct them not to do so. Jurors who refuse to follow a 
judge's instructions may be removed from the court, and may face 
fines and prosecution. Still, jurors have the power to vote their 
conscience during deliberations and no one can stop them from saying, 
"Not guilty" if they believe the law is wrong, or wrongly applied.

Hopefully, justice will prevail in the trial of Jon Peditto, and it 
will signal the beginning of the end of mass incarceration in America.
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