A Marijuana Valentine To Jonathan Magbie: Patron Saint Of Unicorns

Or, how the Barr Amendment killed a paraplegic over a single lousy joint…

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jonathan—We have not forgotten you!

By George Rohrbacher, NORML Board of Directors, medical marijuana patient

I love my own children beyond all measure. They range from 33-to-26 years old, three sons and a daughter who’ve returned to me a lifetime of love and four grandkids, with three more on the way. It is from this perspective that I first heard of the death of Jonathan Magbie and continue to think about him today.
In October of 2004, I arrived in Washington DC for a NORML Board of Directors meeting, having just flown in from the west coast. It was late Friday afternoon. In NORML’s office, Allen St. Pierre, our Executive Director, slid the second section of that day’s Washington Post across the desk to me. There, above the fold, was a news story that made me sick to my stomach.
The article was about the death of Jonathan Magbie, a 28-year old black wheelchair-bound paraplegic, a first offender who died while serving a ten-day jail sentence for the possession of one single lousy joint! The year was 2004, it happened right in our nation’s capitol, Washington DC. At the epicenter of the “Land of the Free”, the cops and courts had put a paralyzed man in jail for pot! He died of respiratory collapse on day-four of his ten-day sentence in the custody of our government.
Judge Retchin’s sentence, ‘ten-days-in-the-hole’ was a cruel response to Jonathan’s honest and forthright answers that he used marijuana to help ease his pain and that he intended to use marijuana again, after he was released. After all, the people of Washington DC had voted overwhelmingly for medical marijuana in 1998—it passed with a 69% yes vote! But then, the marijuana prohibitionists in Congress constructed the Barr Amendment, a federal appropriations rider that blocked the implementation of the will of Washington DC’s voters: So, District of Columbia, if you want your operating money from the federal government, to hell with the voters’ say on medical marijuana.
A victim of alcohol, one of America’s lethal but legal drugs, Jonathan Magbie was struck and paralyzed for life by a drunk driver. Shown here with President Ronald Regan, Jonathan Magbie was a national poster boy for MADD, at the age of 8.
Before Judge Retchin was a young man who had been in a wheelchair for 24-years, ever since, as a four-year old child, Jonathan had been hit, with tragic irony, by a drunk driver and paralyzed for life. For two and a half decades, Jonathan was imprisoned inside his own body, a punishment so cruel that no judge’s sentence could ever come close to matching it—until the application of Washington DC “justice”.

As my eyes moved down through the text of the Post story, in this horrible tragedy, I began to see how easily this loss could have been my own. Jonathan was the very same age as one of my sons. When I finished reading and I looked back up at Allen, there were tears streaming down my face. The Washington D.C. courts could just as easily have killed one of my own sons! And over what??? I screamed…Over what??? Jonathan had died in the hands of our government over one single friggin’ joint!!! Jonathan’s family had faithfully cared for him, all his 28-years, despite the horrendous health complications of being paralyzed below one’s chin. But, after just four days in the care of Washington DC’s jailers, they had killed him!
No one took responsibility for the death of Jonathan Magbie. With the help of the ACLU, Mrs. Scott, Jonathan’s mother, successfully sued Washington DC and was recently granted a large undisclosed award. But, as any parent can tell you, no award could ever compensate for the lost of a child.

And, why, oh why, was Jonathan arrested and put in jail, in the first place? MARIJUANA.
Jonathan was just one of the 20-million Americans who’ve been arrested on marijuana charges, and 89% of them, just like Jonathan, for a very small amount intended for personal use. Bush’s Drug Czar, John Walters, recently claimed that jailed marijuana offenders are as rare as unicorns. Well, what about Jonathan Magbie, the Patron Saint of Unicorns, who died for one joint, jailed just blocks from the White House and Drug Czar’s very own plush and cozy office?
The Congressional marijuana prohibitionists continue using the Barr Amendment to tell Washington DC’s voters to take their will and “shove it”. These beltway prohibitionists encourage local D.C. judges that they want to see a lot see more of that good old ‘Retchin justice’. You say a 69% voter approval rating for medical marijuana in D.C.? Well—screw that!! Congress’ pot prohibitionists, like the Republicans’ minority leader, couldn’t care less if DC’s voters had given the measure 99% approval. The arrest, conviction, sentencing and subsequent death of Jonathan Magbie is the ultimate implementation of the Barr Amendment. Jonathan’s blood is on the hands of all members of Congress who voted for it.

The War on Drugs is, in reality, a war on the people who use drugs; coercion and incarceration, the prime tools of the trade. As a way to demonstrate just how tough the courts are with those ‘so-called medical marijuana patients’ in our nation’s capitol, Judge Retchin decided, paralyzed or not, Jonathan Magbie needed to be taught a lesson. Well Judge, what do you think he learned?
And…what should America learn from the death of this innocent and defenseless young man, Jonathan Magbie, Patron Saint of Unicorns?

© 2006 George Rohrbacher and NORML
Confined to a wheelchair ever since he was four years old,
The life of President Regan’s poster boy has needlessly run cold.
No matter that Jonathan Magbie was paralyzed below his chin
He got a death sentence for using pot as his medicine.
Over a single lousy joint, he got hauled up before the law,
Ten days in the hole! Judge Retchin hammered with her claw.
Up under the jailhouse this first-offender would be sent,
A-Gasping for air, Magbie’s jailtime would be spent.
If Jonathan’s story doesn’t break your heart, you ain’t got one
If this family’s tragedy doesn’t cry for Justice, there is none.
What ya’ gonna’ tell a frantic mom how you’ve killed her son
A casualty in the war that can’t be won.
Demented justice…Judge Retchin’s justice…
Prison life is tough, so much tougher when you’re driving with your chin
Officials pointin’ everywhere, “ain’t my fault we killed poor Jonathan”.
Washington D.C.’s voters said medical cannabis was “O.K.”
And then, our stinkin’ Federal politicians blocked the People’s say.
Slowly drowning in a mucus mess
Jonathan’s dead now, let’s call the drug war a success
So what about jailing a cripple, over a little blunt of weed?
Did this cruel and unusual punishment meet some social need?
If Jonathan’s story doesn’t break your heart, you aint’ got one
If this family’s tragedy doesn’t cry for justice, there is none.
What are ya’ gonna’ tell a crying mom how you’ve killed her son
He’s as dead as if you’d shot him with a gun.
Demented justice…Judge Retchin’s justice…wretched injustice
When Jonathan smoked the ganja to make himself feel right,
He puffed away his pain with the safest drug in sight.
That one bud could bring a hurtin’ man, ten un-do-able days in jail,
Then compassion, common sense, and Justice–even human kindness fails.
Burying your child is the hardest thing that’s ever to be done in life.
A death caused by those charged “to protect and serve” cuts deeper than any knife.
We’re left with chains of earthly bondage, now that Jonathan’s been set free,
Let’s ask ourselves, is this the world we want for him, or you and me?
If Jonathan’s story doesn’t break your heart, you ain’t got one
If this family’s tragedy doesn’t cry for Justice, there is none.
What ya’ gonna’ tell a grievin’ mom how you’ve killed her son
Another casualty in the war that can’t be won.
Demented justice…our country’s Retchin justice… it’s a wretched injustice


Listen to George Rohrbacher read ‘The Ballad of Jonathan Magbiehere.

Wedgwood 2009: People of color are arrested and incarcerated for marijuana at rates hugely disproportionate to those of whites. NORML has updated the world-famous anti-slavery medallion produced in 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood. This medallion was the visual symbol of the first successful movement working to end slavery in the world. This image was about as famous, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the peace symbol is today. Wedgwood produced 20,000 of these anti-slavery medallions. In the campaign to change public opinion on the issue of slavery, the image became a touchstone. The slave trade was finally ended in England in 1807.

NOTE: Josiah Wedgwood’s daughter was Charles Darwin’s mother. Born 200 years ago and on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin’s hatred of slavery shaped his views on human evolution.
NORML challenges other musicians to take this meager effort forward…to write a better song, to record your own version of this song, to perhaps write different music for these words, or produce a hip-hop or rap version, country, blues, or whatever. But—let ART do its part in telling Jonathan’s story.
How can we sit by and not say something about Jonathan Magbie to others? The pain and tragedy of this story is so deep, what else but music could express it? Can you help? Send NORML your recording of “The Ballad of Jonathan Magbie”.

0 thoughts

  1. Sad, especially that this tradedy fades into time; just look at how the posting responses have diminished in number.

  2. He was my brother and bestfriend. Still to this day its hard to comprehend thats he is no longer here. Jon was such a pleasant, nice, man with a great sense of humor. We had alot of fun times together,I will never forget how he changed my life in so many ways. It just pisses me off to think he was takien from so many ppl who love him because he chose to do something that made him feel better and now in 2012 medical marijuana is legal. LOVE YOU ALWAYS ANF FOREVER

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