How FIJA Saved My Life!

By Paul Stanford

The Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) saved my life and I’m happy to be a free man here today to tell this story. I am both the founder of Tree Free EcoPaper, the oldest hemp business in the USA today, and one of the activists that formulated a proposal to regulate cannabis, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, that is being advanced via the initiative process in Oregon by our PAC, Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp. I was acquitted of growing marijuana in federal court in a trial in December of 1993. If I had not been acquitted I would be in a federal prison until the year 2003. FIJA activists and marijuana anti-prohibition activists, of whom I count myself one, played a crucial role in what I consider to be an event that quite literally saved my life. Being a captive for a decade, a victim of the War on Drugs, is not my idea of living. My children and family agree. For those who ask how FIJA has ever helped anyone, I proudly raise my voice.

I must add that I have spent 6 months in prison for what many consider the most political marijuana arrest in US history to that date (since surpassed by Dennis Peron’s somewhat similar arrest in 1996). In July of 1986 I was arrested for growing 13 cannabis plants in my basement here in Portland, Oregon. This was used by the federal government in their campaign to defeat an initiative that we, the Oregon Marijuana Initiative (OMI), placed on the Oregon ballot for a vote in November 1986 which would have allowed adults to possess and grow their own marijuana. The police decided to take my OMI tee-shirts, hats and newsletters and line them up for display at a news conference they held in downtown Portland before they even transported me to jail. There were no packaged drugs, weapons or money, what you see in most drug bust news conferences; instead they put my political material on display and used this, in what was carried by all the media in the state as the lead story that day, as a way to discredit the OMI’s ballot measure. Unfortunately, this had a chilling effect on activists in our campaign and was used by our opposition whenever they campaigned against us. We lost the election with 26% of the state voting for our proposal in 1986. George Bush, Vice President at the time, toured the state for 13 days building opposition to our campaign. Nancy Reagan spent 3 days. Oregon’s US Attorney said publicly that Ed Meese had directed all the Justice Department to actively oppose our 1986 vote. Though this violates the Hatch Act that prohibits non-elected public officials from using public funds and office in opposing political campaigns, Meese ruled that this election wasn’t a political issue but a law enforcement issue. US Attornies from Alaska, Idaho, Washington and California campaigned against us. Even the USDA campaigned against us in 1986. This story deserves much more detail, but not here and now.

Fortunately, in Oregon a convicted felon can still vote and even hold public office, unlike in many places, and so I remain very much a political activist. I look forward to the day, and I am obviously fighting for this right, when I can grow my own ganja again, legally, without fear of arrest, when my children don’t have to think that their father is breaking the law simply by growing a plant. I look forward to buying cannabis at a store and knowing that the money I use isn’t going to support the black-market and all that this entails. I will also mention that the first time I was arrested was for blocking a train carrying hydrogen bomb warheads to the Trident submarines on March 22, 1983. But back to FIJA.

In 1992 I had the government agents kick in my door again and they took my wife and seven month old baby boy hostage at gun point. I was accused of growing marijuana by the federal government in another person’s house. I had worked at a horticulture / metal halide shop in Portland, Hydro-Tech, from 1987 to 1988. Hydro-Tech’s shops in Portland and Seattle were targeted in the federal Operation Green Merchant sting and they were raided with about 90 others across the country in 1989. Hydro-Tech’s owner wasn’t initially charged with marijuana offenses, but several of his employees were. A few employees were charged in federal court, and one was convicted and sentenced to a 6-year prison term. Eventually, with the plea bargain of another employee, they built a case against Hydro-Tech’s owner, but the charges were primarily for violations committed prior to the 1988 institution of new mandatory minimum sentences. He plea bargained to enter a guilty plea to cases prior to the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. Then, in this 1992 raid, he and I were accused of growing 110 cannabis plants in another person’s home in Portland.

After the arrest, in April 1992, I was released without charges. I didn’t know until May of 1993 that I was indicted by a federal grand jury for cultivation of marijuana, when I answered my door and several US Marshalls hauled me away. In the course of my defense, my attorney, Paul Peterson, who now works for the DC office of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), discovered documents that Hydro-Tech’s owner’s attorney had filed outlining how Hydro-Tech’s Seattle store was being operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a sting, arresting, among others, the drummer of the band Pearl Jam and the owner of Seattle night club RK*CNDY. Hydro-Tech’s owner was using his grow store as a tool to save his hide from a new charge that could carry a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. As soon as my attorney, who I’ll praise until the day I die, gave me the court documents and affidavit from the store owner detailing the DEA operation of Hydro-Tech, I faxed them to California NORML, High Times and a few other interested parties. California NORML and Washington NORML had a protest in front of Hydro-Tech in Seattle a few weeks later and the DEA sting was a big Seattle area media story. Needless to say, this didn’t win me any popularity with the DEA and US Attorney’s office. The prosecutor in my case, on several occasions, brought out the fact that my attorney was the only person ever to check that file out of the federal court records.

I was given a plea bargain offer of five years without the possibility of parole and I was told to accept it or I would get ten years. I believe, as GandhI said, that non-cooperation with tyranny is a duty. I pled not guilty.

The trial started on December 6, 1993, my daughter’s first birthday. Outside of the police detectives, the only witness that the government produced was the man whose house actually had the herb growing in it. My attorney had discovered so much dirt on the store owner, Kevin Bjournsen, that the government didn’t dare call him as a witness, though they had the person who lived at the grow operation point to him in court. Thereafter my attorney called the store owner “exhibit Bjournsen” during the trial.

Outside the courthouse, FIJA activists were on the street by 7 a.m. handing out information to all who entered the federal courthouse’s only public entrance. The prosecutor complained several times during the trial about the FIJA activists, and he was quoted in a local paper when he told the lie that jury members were given leaflets in the bathroom. His motion that buttons not be allowed to be worn in court was granted. On the second day a local activist had his banner seized outside the courthouse. I had members of the jury pool who had been rejected wish me luck during a lunch break at a McDonald’s across the street from the courthouse. Several jurors got to see me eat with my family and read to my children during these breaks. Prohibitionist warriors from Drug Watch International (DWI) came to witness my impending incarceration. DWI later issued a statement saying that my case proves you can break the law and get away with it. The government took two days to present its case. We did not call any witnesses, though my attorney mounted effective cross examinations. The man who had the plants in his house said that the only reason he was testifying was so he would not spend 10 years in a federal prison. At one point the prosecutor, Asst. US Attorney Jonathan Hobbe, brought out some books from my home as exhibits when he questioned a narcotics detective. Among them was Grinspoon’s “Marijuana Reconsidered”, Abel’s “Marijuana: The First 12,000 Years” and another book from 1979, “Marijuana and Your Legal Rights.” My attorney, Paul Petersen, asked the detective to turn to a certain page in “Marijuana and Your Legal Rights” and read the chapter headline. The detective stammered for 15 seconds and never said a word. Finally my attorney announced that the chapter title was, “Juries can decide not to convict defendants even if they are guilty” and he said that it detailed jury nullification. This made quite an impression I think.

The jury was given the case to decide at the end of the second day. They were to decide if I was guilty of growing marijuana, guilty of the lesser included charge of possession of marijuana or not guilty. Since I had two cannabis buds in my shirt pocket, my attorney argued that all they should find me guilty of was the lesser included charge of possession of marijuana. The jury sat until 8 that night. They were out the entire next day. They sent several messages to the judge, one asking that if they convicted me of possession, would that mean possession of all the cannabis that the other fellow had growing in his house or just the buds in my pocket. The judge told them he couldn’t answer that question. The judge repeatedly stated that he did not want to try this case again while the jury was out. My attorney said that if the jury was hung, the prosecutor would fare better in any retrial now that he knew our defense strategy. On the third day, in the judge’s chambers, as the jury continued its deliberations, the judge offered to take the case from the jury and find me not guilty of growing the herb, but guilty of the lesser included charge of possession. To avoid the incredible stress of a retrial and the possibility of whatever came of that, I took the judge’s offer. The jury was relieved after 2 and a half days of deliberations. They wouldn’t even convict me of possession, though my own attorney had argued that they should!

A week later I was found not guilty of growing “marijuana,” but guilty of the lesser included crime of possession by the judge. In Oregon state court simple possession is an infraction and only carries a penalty of a fine. In federal court, since I had a prior conviction, it is a felony and there is a mandatory 30 day sentence for possession. The judge sentenced me to 30 days in a halfway house and six months supervised release. That sure beats ten years! I finished the supervised release in November 1994.

Today I am working as a Chief Petitioner on an Oregon initiative petition campaign to tax and regulate marijuana sales through our state liquor stores and helping my local FIJA coordinators, Bill Vossberg and Floyd Landrath. In Oregon, the presiding judge for the county (Multnomah County) that Portland is in has issued a jury instruction telling jurors to ignore FIJA leaflets and that they cannot judge the law and they must abide by what the court says the law is, even though the Oregon Constitution explicitly says that jurors should judge the law and the facts. Judging by the judge’s reaction, we must be doing something right.

My heartfelt thanks, gratitude and encouragement go out to all FIJA activists!

Please visit the FIJA website for more information.