The sentencing of John “Pops” Walker to 21 years’ imprisonment and asset forfeiture on Monday is outrageous. Walker, who pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and tax evasion, ran a chain of dispensaries in Los Angeles and Orange counties where fierce battles have been waged over the number of storefront dispensaries allowed to operate.
The outrageous character of the outcome does not stem from the choices of Judge James Selna, who gave Walker the lightest sentence called for by federal sentencing guidelines. Rather, the outrage stems from the grossly unjust character of the guidelines themselves, the federal laws which provide for them, and the perverse web of economic incentives which led to Walker’s prosecution.
The absurdity of U.S. cannabis policy should be immediately apparent to anyone who reads the news. The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) conveys to the DEA and other agencies the power to prosecute cannabis crimes only because it classifies cannabis as a Schedule I substance – every other schedule in the CSA calls for regulation not prohibition (see, for example, Schedule II’s cocaine, which is widely used in US hospitals as a topical anesthetic). Schedule I drugs are classified as having no medical value, and yet even a cursory review of the medical literature on medical marijuana clearly shows that pot’s Schedule I status is a gross misstatement of fact.
Yet absurder still is the perverse fact that the government made an obscene profit off of Walker’s prosecution. Any federal case of this magnitude is bound to be expensive, but no one should worry about poor cash-strapped D.C., which is now on the take for almost $30 million of Walker’s cash, real estate and business interests: $25 million through civil asset forfeiture, and $2.4 million in back taxes (the state Board of Equalization stands to collect $1.8 million in tax revenues).
Walker’s prosecution over $2.4 million in unpaid taxes netted the federal government over $27 million – a 10X return in less than a year. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has hundreds of dispensaries, all operating illegally under the absurd federal law. Can there be any doubt as to why federal prosecutors singled out Walker (and his 13 co-defendants) for prosecution?