Trump Throws Stoners Off Train—Meanwhile, Judge Recuses Self From Benno Medical Marijuana Trial


Writer’s Note: This story is my take on remarks made by Trump officials last week that indicate the administration may enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized recreational use. My argument is that federal marijuana law has done enough damage to otherwise law-abiding citizens and should be rescinded.

In my story, exhibit No. 1 for the damage caused by federal marijuana law, is the case of James Benno and his two adult sons, currently on trial in Shasta County Superior Court for charges related to Benno’s former medical marijuana collective in Happy Valley, which was raided and destroyed by law enforcement agents in 2014. The trial, delayed for three years, has been underway for three weeks.

Just as I was finishing the story, I was contacted by James Benno, who informed me that Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen H. Baker has recused himself from the case. Baker has informed Benno’s attorney, Joseph Tully, that when court convenes this Tuesday morning, he will declare a mistrial. It’s an astounding develop in a case that’s been controversial from the beginning. Should Shasta County pursue a new trial? That’s the real-life issue this story is about.

Remember the good old days, before Measure A passed?

Remember the good old days, before Measure A passed?

I have a dream. One day, out here in the eastern Shasta County foothills, miles from civilization, I’ll plant a single, solitary marijuana plant outdoors, just one, without fear of reprisal from the county sheriff and code enforcement.

Sadly, despite what you might have heard about marijuana being “legal” in California, that day has not yet come. Even sadder, it may never arrive, if I’m reading remarks made last week by White House press secretary Sean Spicer correctly.

If you thought the cultural war over marijuana was finished with the election of a new kind of Republican, as I did, you may have to think again.

Spicer, in case you missed it last week between the peak of President Donald Trump’s thunderous Congressional address Wednesday night and the subsequent avalanche of yet more fake news stories alleging collusion between Russian diplomats and Trump administration officials, threw all the stoners off the Trump train.

I really did think this was going to be a different kind of Republican administration when it came to marijuana. But Spicer, by drawing a distinction between recreational and medical marijuana, and suggesting “greater enforcement” for the former is coming from the feds, did more than just reverse Trump’s stated marijuana policy during the campaign, “leave it to the states to decide.”

Spicer destroyed any notion that Trump, the wildcard maverick, might disregard both his Republican and Democrat predecessors and advocate the removal of cannabis from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.

That’s the federal sleight-of-hand that rates marijuana on par with heroin. The CSA was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Consider it a conservative reaction to the liberal excesses of the 1960s. It marked the contemporary beginning of the War on Drugs and ushered in the era of mass incarceration of marijuana and other drug offenders.

The CSA is administered by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Substances that are considered by cherry-picked reports to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical value are placed in Schedule 1. Heroin, marijuana and LSD, along with a host of other psychoactive compounds, are on the list, and it’s illegal to prescribe these substances under any circumstances.

It may come as a shocker to some medical marijuana patients in the 28 states where it’s now legal, but you’re still breaking federal law. Same goes for the stoners, I’m sorry, recreational users, lighting up in the seven states where recreational use has been approved by voters. Despite repeated attempts by both medicinal cannabis and criminal justice advocates to reschedule marijuana since the CSA’s inception, the DEA has refused to do so.

In my opinion, one of President Barack Obama’s greatest failures was not using his bully pulpit to force the DEA to reschedule marijuana. I had hoped President Trump, with all of his talk about state’s rights during the campaign, might take a look at the issue, see the immense waste of taxpayer money spent fighting the federal war on marijuana, compare it to the substantial tax revenue raised by states that have legalized marijuana, comprehend the absurdity of the federal position, and do the right thing.

The right thing being to direct incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reschedule marijuana, or remove it from the schedule entirely, so it can regulated properly as legal commerce.

That, of course, will take some doing—and judging by Spicer’s comments last week, may already be impossible. Sessions is famously anti-marijuana, in the old-school Republican way. For as much as his liberal critics have called him a racist, marijuana prohibitionists are no doubt ecstatic that a guy who once joked that the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot” is now the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Got that stoners? Folks who use marijuana recreationally are lower than klansmen on the Trump administration’s criminal totem pole. You’re on the highway to heroin, according to Spicer and Sessions, and they’re not the only ones who see it that way, even though scientific evidence indicates marijuana use reduces the rate of opiate overdoses.

Don’t let the apparent widespread acceptance of marijuana in numerous national opinion polls fool you, like the popular vote did in last year’s presidential election. A substantial number of people continue to oppose marijuana use, and the majority of them live in the red counties across the United States that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

That includes red counties in blue states like mine, Shasta County, where thanks to the byzantine local politics of marijuana, a downtown Redding resident can grow their allotted number of plants in their backyard but I can’t grow a single plant outdoors on a 7-acre ranchette in the middle of nowhere. Frustration, thy name is Shasta County.

Correction. Frustration’s name is Schedule 1. The situation is similar in many of California’s rural counties, where conservative-leaning public officials who claim to be all about state’s rights and local control invoke federal law to override state marijuana law, with no apparent sense of irony.

Neither does there appear to be any overarching principle behind their pursuit, such as enhancing public safety. Instead, for perennially cash-strapped local law enforcement agencies, enforcing federal marijuana laws serves as a sort of welfare program.

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko admitted as much to national media back in 2010, informing the Wall Street Journal and other outlets that he was cracking down on marijuana because “that’s where the money is.”

James Benno, left, with attorney Joseph Tully and sons Logan and Jacob Benno. Photo courtesy of James Benno.

James Benno, left, with attorney Joseph Tully and sons Logan and Jacob Benno. Photo courtesy of James Benno.

One of the things the sheriff probably spent some of those federal funds on was tracking down outspoken Shasta County medical marijuana advocate James Benno, who wasn’t too hard to find, since he made no secret about the location of his medical marijuana collective in dubiously named Happy Valley.

In 2014, a squadron of unmarked vehicles from a multi-agency drug task force descended upon Benno’s property, arrested Benno and his sons and then proceeded to cart his entire operation, 99 plants, dirt, pots and all, worth millions, to a local landfill, where it was destroyed.

After three years and numerous postponements, Benno and his two sons are currently on trial in Shasta County Superior Court, facing charges that include marijuana misdemeanors and possession of unlawful weapons magazines that could send them to prison.

Benno contends he was operating under state medical marijuana guidelines and that the magazines were possessed legally. The county contends he was running an illegal marijuana farm for profit and is sticking to the weapons charges—perhaps because most of the marijuana charges have been reduced to misdemeanors due to ongoing changes in state law.

The county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing the case in defiance of state medical marijuana law, and should it lose, it could be facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit from the Bennos. Should the county win, the Bennos could go to prison, or perhaps the county jail, presuming there’s any cell space available to hold them.

As I was writing this story, I was contacted by James Benno, who informed me that Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen H. Baker has recused himself and will declare a mistrial on Tuesday morning when court reconvenes.

Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen H. Baker's notice of recusal from the Benno mistrial.

Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen H. Baker’s notice of recusal from the Benno mistrial.

Can Shasta County, with its rising property crime rate and lack of jail space, among many other problems, afford to take the Bennos to a new trial? Can it afford not too?

No matter what the outcome, anyone arguing this is an efficient expenditure of county funds hasn’t done the math. It’s a pissing contest between the local Republican establishment and the emerging medical and recreational marijuana industries, which, with the exception of Shasta Lake City and its three dispensaries, recession-ridden Shasta County has chosen to ignore, including a majority of its electorate.

I haven’t been attending the trial, but I’ve made no secret about my support for the Bennos. I believe James Benno, who I’ve interviewed at length several times, was doing his utmost to comply with state medical marijuana law. Why else would he be shooting his mouth off about it in public?

I know for a fact that he has provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of free medicine to kids suffering from seizure disorders. He doesn’t drive a Mercedes Benz. For anyone else but Shasta County’s most outspoken medical marijuana proponent, this case would have been settled a long time ago, with perhaps a moderate fine.

But no. That’s not the way “we” do business here in Shasta County. “We” meaning the majority of the electorate that voted against medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, gay marriage and all the other cultural war sore points during the past several elections. Are we really that out of touch?

As the Gallup Poll noted last year, marijuana and gay marriage have enjoyed equal rises in public approval since the 1960s, to the point where a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, declared gay marriage is “the law of the land” and the party barely grumbled.

Damn, I’m still hoping he’ll say something similar about marijuana. Anyone with a moral compass can see that keeping marijuana on Schedule 1 is wrong, and I do believe Trump has a moral compass, despite all the negative things written about him.

Trump’s comments on the issue in the past and during the campaign, which I’ll link to again here, are worth revisiting. In the past, he’s held the same libertarian position as many business executives, that the war on drugs is a failure and decriminalization is the answer. During the campaign, he took the federalist position on marijuana, leave it to the states.

Now, members of his administration are signaling they’re a difference between medical and recreational marijuana and they’re going to throw the stoners off the train.

For those of you keeping track, that’s the opposite of leaving it to the states.

It doesn’t matter that every single state that has legalized recreational marijuana has diverted substantial amounts of tax revenue to programs designed to warn people under the legal age limit about the potential harm caused by marijuana. There are some studies that do indeed indicate that marijuana may cause harm to young, developing brains, and tax funds from Prop. 64, the recreational marijuana initiative passed by state voters last year, will be directed toward further research—research that will otherwise never be done.

Regardless, marijuana remains a cultural war flashpoint. There’s a significant number of people who think making America great again means turning back the clock on marijuana decriminalization, no matter how many concessions the pro-marijuana crowd throws in.

Like the 12-step program definition of insanity, they cannot comprehend that they’re repeating the same argument and expecting different results. You just can’t throw everybody in prison. We don’t have enough money, for one. It doesn’t produce anything but ex-convicts, for another.

It remains to be seen if President Trump can break through this madness, but color me doubtful. Bigly.

But I can still dream.


R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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