Missoula District Court: Pot case ‘mutiny’ leaves ripples for other drug cases

By GWEN FLORIO of the Missoulian missoulian.com | Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011 6:30 am |

Call it the Pot Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

Oh, wait. Somebody already did that.

The Examiner online news site – one of many news organizations that picked up on the story of a Missoula jury pool that dug in its heels last month at the prospect of trying a case involving “a couple of buds” of marijuana – put a variation of that headline on its story.

Others likewise had fun with it. “The Great Montana Marijuana Mutiny,” the Wall Street Journal’s legal blog termed it.

“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Change,” pronounced the Toronto Star.

And Huffington Post declared in a possible first that “Sanity Broke Out in Missoula, Montana, Today.”

Headline hijinks aside, the jury pool’s action – and the reaction to it – has serious ramifications for continued prosecution of low-level nonviolent drug crimes, not just in Missoula County but around the country.

“It was almost like a slap in the face to the system,” said John Zeimet, of the moment on Dec. 16 when he watched his fellow prospective jurors, one after another, tell Missoula County District Judge Dusty Deschamps that not only were they disinclined to convict, but wondered aloud why taxpayer money was being wasted on the case.

“The people stood up and spoke out.”

The story “hit a nerve” around the country, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the national Drug Policy Alliance that advocates drug law reform.

“It shows the emperor-has-no-clothes dimension to what happened. It’s an expression of what many people feel – that marijuana possession should no longer be illegal,” he said.

A Gallup Poll released Oct. 28 showed 46 percent of all Americans favor legalizing marijuana use. “A new high,” Gallup called it, representing a huge generational shift from the 1960s and ’70s, when 8 in 10 people queried by Gallup opposed its legalization.

In the 2010 poll,

58 percent of those in the western United States support legalization. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Count Deschamps among that 58 percent.

The judge and former Missoula County attorney said he’s “more or less” convinced that marijuana should be legalized in some form, despite being “much alarmed at what I consider to be rampant abuse of what I think was a well-intentioned initiative” – that being the 2004 statewide voter initiative that legalized medical marijuana in Montana. Deschamps also voted for that initiative.

“We’ve seen some downside in the medical marijuana thing, but I’m reasonably convinced that, over the years, I haven’t seen very many criminals go out and commit horrible crimes under the influence of marijuana. Alcohol is 10 times the problem marijuana is, a hundred times.”

Zeimet, a 53-year-old truck driver from Huson, also thinks marijuana ought to be legalized, and – like many other members of the Dec. 16 jury pool – objected to the expense of trying Teuray Cornell on a drug possession charge.

“It upset a lot of people,” he said. “You’re wasting the people’s time and the city’s time and money to do something silly and stupid like this.”

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