And federal drug laws are unjustifiably extreme. Consider the case of Chris Williams, the subject of this Op-Doc video, who opened a marijuana grow house in Montana after the state legalized medical cannabis. Mr. Williams was eventually arrested by federal agents despite Montana’s medical marijuana law, and he may spend the rest of his life behind bars. While Jerry Sandusky got a 30-year minimum sentence for raping young boys, Mr. Williams is looking at a mandatory minimum of more than 80 years for marijuana charges and for possessing firearms during a drug-trafficking offense.
This outcome is sad, of course — Mr. Williams will not be free to raise his teenage son — but it is also morally repugnant. Even if you think that the benefits of legalized medical marijuana do not outweigh the costs — a crucial debate, but one we can table for the moment — a coherent system of justice must explain why one defendant is punished more harshly than the next. It must explain why a farmer who grows marijuana in compliance with state law should be punished much more harshly than some pedophiles and killers. If we cannot explain this disparity, we should fight to change it.
Leading up to Mr. Williams’s trial, federal prosecutors offered him various plea bargains, but he turned them all down. He believed, quixotically enough, that he deserved his day in court. He held this conviction even though prosecutors precluded him from presenting his compliance with state law as a defense to the federal charges. Without this essential context, the jury heard a deeply distorted version of Mr. Williams’s story.
After Mr. Williams’s conviction, the United States attorney general’s office came back with a new deal. If he waived his right to appeal, they would drop most of the charges so that he would face a minimum of 10 years in prison and pay a $288,000 judgment.
His response? “This is nothing more than slavery and completely disregards my rights as a citizen of the United States of America. I have declined the offer.”