The judicial system in the United States is one of the most complex and confusing systems in the world.
It consists of two courts, federal and state. The federal court system is based on the U.S. Constitution while the state court system is based on state constitutions or statutory laws. The federal courts have primary jurisdiction over federal law matters and the states have primary jurisdiction over the laws of each respective state.
When you throw in the ever-changing laws both on the federal and state level regarding Marijuana it gets even more confusing.
Marijuana is the most used illicit drug in the United States, with more than 22.2 million Americans using it in 2015.
In recent years, there have been many debates and discussions about legalizing cannabis for both recreational and medicinal purposes.
As of April 2021, 9 out of 10 Americans support the movement toward making marijuana legal. Some people only want it available for medicinal use, while others are pro-recreational weed, as well.
Gallup data from earlier this year found that 70% of U.S. adults now consider smoking marijuana to be morally acceptable.
With marijuana legalization on the rise, a growing majority of people are coming to the realization that marijuana is not this monster drug they were led to believe.
You would think that means there are fewer arrests for marijuana possession and more instances of past convictions being expunged or shortened. However, that is not the case, yet.
That brings us to John McDonald. Let’s look at his case.
John Edward McDonald was pulled over on September 23, 2009, under the guise of a routine traffic stop due to an improperly displayed tag on his rental vehicle.
However, the officers who stopped him had been tipped off earlier from an informant looking to make a deal. The informant gave the officers information on where to find someone who could potentially net them a bigger marijuana possession arrest. That someone was John.
When the officers arrived at the location specified by the informant, they found a vehicle that matched the description the informant gave and under the guise of a routine traffic stop the officers pulled him over and began their quest to search and find what they were looking for.
According to Officer Dennis, after being told that they got a tip from an informant, John decided to comply in hopes of cutting a deal like the informant had earlier. The officer stated that John admitted to having previously had ten pounds of marijuana but that he had already given it to his brother and only had a smokestack in his car. (A smokestack is a term usually used to refer to the measurement of weed in the pipe or smokestack of a bong.)
The arresting officer told John that if the marijuana they found in his possession was less than an ounce he would not be arrested.
John denies saying any of this to Officer Dennis. He also denies the claims of Officer Dennis that he was not being detained at this time when he was in fact handcuffed.
Officer Dennis also states that John was free to leave at any time after the matter of the “routine traffic stop” was handled. John disagrees and states he was forcibly detained and was put through a series of questioning where he repeatedly asked for an attorney.
Officer Dennis claims that John decided to let him search his car and handed him the keys. After receiving the keys, the officer went straight to the trunk where the informant said to look and found exactly what the informant said he would, a black gym bag filled with plastic bags containing marijuana, digital scales, and more empty plastic storage bags. When John sees what he found he denies that the bag is his and that this is the first time he’s ever seen it. Officer Dennis then proceeds to arrest John.
When John was taken into custody, he was found to have $2,818 on him. That coupled with two hotel receipts, found in the gym bag, cleared the way for his trial. John states the money that he had in his possession was to pay the person painting his car. This explanation makes sense since the vehicle he was pulled over in was a rental. However, the hotel receipts that he said was his, found in the bag he said he had no knowledge of, was what sealed his fate.
On November 3, 2009, John was indicted by a grand jury and was charged as a subsequent drug offender in possession of more than 1 kilogram of marijuana with the intent to distribute. He was also charged with violating Mississippi Code Annotated section 41-29-142 (Rev. 2009) because he was within 1,500 feet of a church building. John was pulled over for this “routine traffic stop” inside the parking lot of his apartment complex.
John McDonald was charged as a subsequent offender with marijuana possession and was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
When he got the chance, John appealed on the following grounds:
- Unreasonable Detention – John does not challenge the initial traffic stop. He acknowledges that stopping the vehicle for an improperly displayed tag was appropriate. However, McDonald contends that once the officer determined that the tag had been applied for and no other issues were present, the justification for the stop ended. Therefore, any further withholding constituted an unreasonable detention.
- The statements elicited during the traffic stop should be suppressed, and his consent to search his vehicle was not voluntary – John stands by his statement that he repeatedly asked for an attorney present while being questioned and that he did not voluntarily give consent to search his vehicle.
- Admissions Made During the Traffic Stop – John states that he was in custody during the traffic stop; therefore, he should have been given a Miranda warning before any questioning commenced. Accordingly, he asserts that any admissions he made during the interrogation should have been excluded from trial. John was not read his Miranda rights before the gym bag was found because according to Officer Dennis, John was only being questioned and not detained.
- His post-Miranda 1 silence was improperly introduced at trial – John states that the testimony discussing his post-arrest, post-Miranda silence was improperly introduced at trial, thus violating his constitutional right to remain silent and constituting reversible error. The challenged testimony came during the State’s direct examination of Officer Dennis. The State asked Officer Dennis: “When [ (John)] signed the Miranda warning, did he sign the Miranda [-] rights waiver that was on the warning?” Agent Dennis replied: “No, sir, he did not sign his waiver.” John objected, but his objection was overruled.
- His prior drug offenses were improperly introduced at trial – John states this violates Mississippi Rules of Evidence 403 and 404(b). He asserts there was sufficient evidence to establish intent without introducing the convictions; thus, the convictions were not more probative than prejudicial. The State argues the convictions were used to establish proof of his intent to distribute. The State further argues that the jury was instructed that it could not use the evidence of McDonald’s convictions when determining whether he was guilty or not guilty of the instant charge.
- The indictment was not properly amended to include his status as a subsequent drug offender – McDonald argues his sentence as a second or subsequent drug offender was illegal because an order amending the indictment was never entered on the record. He further asserts his attorney was ineffective for failing to object to the lack of an order amending the indictment and for failing to preserve the issue for appeal.
The court hearing his appeal claimed to not find any egregious errors or mishandling of his case and denied his appeal.
The Man Behind the Case Number
John Edward McDonald was born on April 13, 1978.
As a child, John was raised in a 2-parent home with a brother and 3 sisters.
Before his conviction, John was a married man. He was making a life for himself and his family that included 2 kids of his own and 2 step kids he considered his.
Life After Conviction
As of today, John has served 11 of the 60 years he is sentenced to for possession of Marijuana.
His conviction led to the breakup of his marriage. He has also had to watch his children grow up and have children of their own through letters and photos and has had to say goodbye to his parents locked away in prison. He was unable to be by their side to comfort them as they passed.
He hopes to one day be free from the grasp of the Mississippi Department of Corrections and become a youth court counselor to help educate young people caught in the judicial system and help them stand up for their rights.
Mississippi’s Stance on Marijuana
Like today, back in 2009, possession of marijuana was prohibited by the Mississippi Controlled Substance Law.
John was charged as a subsequent drug offender for possession of marijuana in an amount of more than one kilogram with the intent to distribute. The indictment further charged that the offense occurred within 1,500 feet of a church building in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated section 41–29–142 (Rev.2009)
According to Mississippi Laws and Penalties:
- Possession of 1-5k of marijuana is a felony that warrants a minimum of 6 years and a maximum of 24 years sentencing with a $500,000 max fine. Miss. Ann. Code § 41-29-139 (c)(2)(B)
If that is the case, why is John serving a 60-year sentence that is almost three times more than the maximum number of years?
If he were to serve that entire sentence, his tentative release date is October 3, 2071.
He would be 93 years old.
Ask yourself this question: Do you feel that being caught with marijuana with the possible intention of selling to other consenting adults deserves sentencing that requires you to spend your entire life behind bars?
For comparison here are examples of other crimes far more violent and morally corrupt but with shorter sentencing:
|Offense||Contrary To||Maximum Penalty|
|Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and related offenses other than one involving murder||International Criminal Court Act 2001 s.51 or s.52||30 Years|
|Causing death by dangerous driving||Road Traffic Act 1988 s.1||14 Years|
|Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs||Road Traffic Act 1988 s.3A||14 Years|
|Aggravated vehicle taking resulting in death||Theft Act 1968 s.12A||14 Years|
|Placing explosives with intent to cause bodily injury||Offenses against the Person Act 1861 s.30||14 Years|
|Causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult||Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 s.5||14 Years|
|Female genital mutilation||Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 s.1||14 Years|
|Possession of firearm with intent to cause fear of violence||Firearms Act 1968 s.16A||10 Years|
|Possessing or distributing prohibited weapon or ammunition (5-year minimum sentence)||Firearms Act 1968||10 Years|
Sentences that are somewhat close to John’s are serious offenses that involved someone committing multiple murders and bring a minimum of 30 years.
Mississippi decriminalized marijuana in 1978 and legalized CBD in 2014. Decriminalized does not mean legal. It just means if you are caught with the substance, it is a lesser sentence or fine then it would have been.
The most recent action against Marijuana prohibition was in 2020 where 70% of Mississippi voters approved Amendment 65 which was a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis. The mayor of Madison, Mississippi sued the state just days before the 2020 election to nullify the ballot measure, and in May 2021, the state’s Supreme Court sided with the mayor in a 6-3 ruling that struck down the medical cannabis law enacted by voters
No marijuana is legal in Mississippi for medical or recreational use, aside from CBD oil.
Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession. The number of Americans arrested with this charge has tripled since 1980 making it 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015. To be clear, that is six times the number of arrests for drug sales.
One-fifth of the people in prison, which is about 456,000, is serving time for a drug charge. Another 1.15 million people are on probation and/or parole for drug-related offenses.
Putting people in prison for drug-related offenses has been proven to have little positive impact.
Marijuana arrests place a significant burden on our judicial system.
• According to the FBI Unified Crime Statistics, marijuana accounted for 3.3% of sale/manufacturing drug crime arrests and 36.8% of possession and use drug crime arrests in 2018
• Some estimates say that the government spends $29 billion annually on drug prohibition alone and that this too could be saved by legalizing marijuana
“Criminally prosecuting adults for making the choice to smoke marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources and an intrusion on personal freedom. I do not advocate urging people to smoke marijuana, neither do I urge them to drink alcoholic beverages or smoke tobacco, but in none of these cases do I think prohibition enforced by criminal sanctions is good public policy.” – Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA)
Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the US over $1 trillion. In 2015 alone, the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million every day to incarcerate people with drug-related offenses making that more than $3.3 billion annually.
If marijuana is legalized it would save around $7.7 billion per year in averted enforcement costs and would create an additional $6 billion in tax revenue.
“We have been engaged in [the war on drugs] for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities.”
~ Sen. Bernie Sanders
Don’t you think it’s time that we end the war on drugs and stop pretending that marijuana possession is worse than genocide?