Medical Marijuana Activist Freed in Dramatic Reversal
Drug Policy Activists Appalled at Threats to Judges and Defense Attorney
SACRAMENTO-When he woke up today, Oakland medical marijuana activist Jeff Jones thought it would be his last day of freedom for months to come. On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter A. Nowinski had sentenced Jones to begin a 3 month sentence today in a federal prison for jury tampering, arising from Jones distributing leaflets to potential jurors hearing a case against fellow activist Bryan Epis last year.
But when Nowinski arrived at work today, his first action was to stay Jones' incarceration and order all parties involved in the case back to his courtroom. After saying in court today, "I gave this matter a great deal of thought over the weekend," Nowinski vacated the prison sentence, and instead sentenced Jones to probation and ordered him to pay almost $4000 in restitution for the cost to the courts to re-empanel a jury last year after Jones gave members of the first jury pool information that the judge in this Epis trial had forbidden to be discussed in the case. What Jones wanted that jury to know was that the Epis defense had been forbidden to discuss medical marijuana or the California law authorizing its use.
Nowinski said that despite his previous ruling, he had decided that Jones did not belong in prison, "I had a heavy criminal calendar last month and saw nearly one thousand defendants; Mr. Jones is not a candidate to share a bunk with any one of them." When the prosecution asked that Jones be fined an additional $1000, Nowinski refused, stating, "I'm sure Mr. Jones had $1000 worth of anguish over the weekend."
However, Mr. Jones was not the only one anguished today. Nowinski's frightening revelation that envelopes containing an unidentified white powder had been delivered to the courthouse today shocked the courtroom. According to Nowinski, envelopes addressed to him and U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who had presided over the Epis case, had arrived that morning and were being handled by a hazardous materials disposal team. As Nowinski spoke of the threatening delivery, Jones began to shake his head in apparent sadness and disgust.
When asked how he felt after the hearing, Jones expressed concern only for the well being of the judges. His head still shaking, he said, "I am at a loss for words."
Jones' attorney Michael Bigelow also received a threatening letter today, but without any apparent powder.
Among those in the court to support Jones today was Glenn Backes, health policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance, national advocacy group for medical marijuana. After the hearing he said, "We are incredibly impressed with Magistrate Judge Nowinski for his ability to reverse himself, especially in light of the threat he received today. What a principled act." Regarding the threat, Backes said, "We're shocked, and we hope our friends in law enforcement find whoever did this and find them fast. This is a terrible reminder to all of us -- no matter what side of the medical marijuana issue we're on -- that police should be allowed to focus on real threats to our safety."
Bryan Epis was sentenced to ten years in prison last July for violating federal marijuana laws, and remains incarcerated pending appeal. Recently a photo of his 8-year old daughter Ashley was featured on billboards throughout the state, holding a sign that says, "My dad is not a criminal."
Jones' own interest in medical marijuana developed after the death of his father of cancer. He has directed the marijuana dispensary in Oakland since 1995.