Author and panel discuss law reform for medical marijuana


Author Peter Hecht speaks about his book Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015 in the University Union. He is this year’s One Book author.

Marissa Montoya

One Book Author Peter Hecht hosted a panel discussion regarding the rapidly evolving and expanding world of cannabis, namely medical marijuana. The panel consisted of power players who have made major impacts in the laws and the way greater society views medical marijuana. The panelists were also characters in Hecht’s book, “WEED LAND: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”

A main point of all the panelists was to focus more on federal regulations.

One of the most compelling stories of the event came from Dale Schafer, an attorney who started growing cannabis plants for his wife, Dr. Mollie Fry, when she was diagnosed with cancer. Schafer and Fry were sentenced to prison for five years for distributing cannabis to patients who received medical marijuana recommendations from Fry. Schafer was recently released after serving 52 months in prison. His compassion for members of the medical marijuana community and his hunger for continued progress were blatant in his rhetoric.

“This system has been nefariously growing and to unwind it is not going to be easy because no one wants to give up their money, their power. Nobody has enough hair on their rear-ends in Washington right now to say ‘stop’! A few people are around the edges,” said Schafer. “We need to have a changed status of cannabis. It shouldn’t even be called marijuana anymore because that was a pejorative of Mexican Americans. Cannabis should not be a Schedule I drug. As students, learn. This is a learning institution, put on your thinking cap and question. Get angry and turn that anger into action.”

William “Bill” Portanova, one of the leading defense lawyers in the Sacramento region, was another panelist. Portanova is also a former assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in drug enforcement and organized crime task forces. As a former prosecutor turned defense lawyer, Portanova advocated for focusing on changing federal laws.

“This crowd probably does understand this, but most people do not. There are two entirely different systems of criminal law. One is the stuff you are all familiar with, local laws,” said Portanova. “But there is an entirely separate system of criminal justice that regulates the entire country with its own judges, own prosecutors and its own laws and they couldn’t care less what the state laws are. If you think a joint won’t get you prosecuted, let me tell you I am representing young people for smoking a joint at Yosemite National Park. It’s still happening, whether it should be is up to you. I hope you change the law, and I hope you focus on federal law. You either get Congress to change the classification, or nothing changes.”

The next panelist, Dale Sky Jones, who is the executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, the infamous cannabis trade school in Oakland, CA. She was also the spokesperson for the Proposition 19 campaign to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults in 2010. Jones is chairwoman of the board for the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform and is a prime proponent of the legalization movement in California.

One of the points Jones made was that while she would not be “mom of the year” if her child got into her medications, she would rather the child accidentally eat a brownie than get into a bottle of aspirin. Like the other panelists, Jones is also a proponent of urging change on the federal level.

“This is the same path we took to disassemble alcohol prohibition. A full year before Congress acted, California said we are no longer going to uphold your failed policy. A full 10 years before Congress acted, New York did. It was state by state saying we will no longer uphold your failed federal policy that eventually undid the federal alcohol prohibition. And this happened while it was still living memory,” said Jones. “Folks remember the time before prohibition, how bad it got during prohibition, ‘and wow, we better fix this folks’. We don’t remember why cannabis became illegal. We just assume it must have been for a really good reason. There is new evidence.”

Jones also educated the audience about something called ‘jury immunity’, also known as ‘jury nullification. This means that jury members have the right to vote their conscience without negative repercussions.

“When you get called to jury duty, you are not just judging the individual and whether or not they broke the law. You are also actually judging the law. This is how we ended the last civil rights injustices. When you were thrown in jail for loving someone of another color, we said ‘this is ridiculous and I will no longer convict on this ridiculous law’, Jones said. “We can do the same thing with drug laws. Because as citizens, if you can’t get direct action through your Congress, through your President, through your legislature, through your state, you can act as a citizen when you show up to vote and when you show up for jury duty. You have that right and that responsibility. I ask you to share this information with three of your friends and your mama.”

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness was also on the panel. He made it clear that he does not advocate the use of marijuana but that he does understand the need for change. His biggest focus was on finding a way to measure the effects of marijuana so that a safe level can be established for safely driving under the influence. McGinness also agreed with the other panelists that focus needs to be on change on the federal level.

Schafer voiced a difference of opinion with McGinness’ comparison of the effects of cannabis to the effects of alcohol.

Regardless which side of the cannabis fence one leans, the topic of federal legalization is an important issue that deserves discussion because there are people who greatly benefit from its use. The consensus of the panel discussion was the suggestion that citizens use the power of their votes to change federal policy in regards to cannabis.