If you are a practicing criminal defense lawyer, or if you are representing newly legal marijuana businesses, this week presents a great opportunity to pick-up some of your mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) credits, required by most states, at the annual NORML legal seminar held in the fascinating venue of Key West, Florida.
The Conch Republic
The southern-most city in the continental US, Key West, the county seat of Monroe County, is an island located 129 miles southwest of Miami, FL, and 94 miles north-northwest of Cuba. It is accessible both via US 1, a two-lane highway completed in 1938, and via the Key West International Airport, with regularly scheduled flights to and from the mainland.
Key West was the site of the winter White House selected by President Harry Truman (he spent a total of 175 days visiting during his presidency); and was the long-time home of writers Ernest Hemingway, who later moved to Cuba, and Tennessee Williams.
The island has also long been known as a refuge for pirates and smugglers, with a culture that is tolerant of outlaws and others who live on the edges of society. Locals, known for their quirky sense of independence, refer to the island as “The Conch Republic,” a name first used in 1982 when Key West briefly declared its “independence” to protest a decision by the Border Patrol to stop every car leaving the Keys looking for illegal immigrants, which, for a time, nearly shutdown the tourism industry.
With that background, one can easily understand why NORML has been holding a legal seminar in Key West for more than 35 years. As “outlaws” ourselves, we have always found the environment friendly and inviting to marijuana smokers.
The NORML Legal Committee
At NORML our overriding goal is to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, regardless of why one smokes. Until we achieve that ultimate goal, we also do our best to provide assistance and support to victims of the current laws. The NORML Legal Committee (NLC), comprised of more than 650 criminal defense attorneys from all across the country, plays a major role in providing that support.
In addition tLegalCommitteeo their legal work, many of the NLC attorneys also play an active political role in the legalization movement in their states. These are committed defenders of freedom, regardless of the venue.
Their primary motivation is seeking justice, not simply profits. Day after day they stand-up for the rights of those who have been arrested, seeking to force the authorities to respect our Constitutional protections, and seeking to minimize the harm caused to each individual who is dragged through the criminal justice system. They represent the individual against the awesome power of the government.
At these NORML legal seminars, we spend our days together listening to experts lecture on new and exciting developments in the law, and refining our trial and appellate skills. And each evening we gather for social events where lawyers from different parts of the country can get to know their counterparts from other states and develop lasting relationships.
While I certainly do not wish to undervalue the importance of what the lawyers learn from the lectures, I have come to the conclusion that the most valuable benefit to those who attend is the feeling of community they develop with other criminal defense attorneys, allowing them to return to battle the following week with new energy and resolve, and some new allies.
Marijuana Smokers Still Being Targeted
Sadly, marijuana smokers are still targeted by aggressive and misguided law enforcement efforts in most states today. Smokers in those states read about the newly won freedoms in a handful of states, and dream of the day when their state will become more tolerant; but they still have to worry that the next knock on the door may be the police with a search warrant, about to destroy their home and wreck their lives, looking for a little pot.
The recent release of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report found a modest increase in marijuana arrests in 2014, following a three-year decline. The marijuana arrests for 2014 totaled 700,993, up from 693,481 arrests in 2013, but lower than the 749,825 arrests in 2012 and 757,969 in 2011. The total number of marijuana arrests for 2014 are some 20 percent lower than the totals for 2007, when police made an all-time high 872,721 cannabis-related arrests.
Using the ACLU estimate of cost per arrest ($750), the cost to the states of making all those marijuana arrests totaled at least $525,744,750; but the real costs would need to factor-in the disrupted lives and careers, and the cost of saddling so many otherwise law-abiding citizens with permanent criminal records, limiting their ability to get good jobs and advance professionally. The real cost of marijuana prohibition would be far higher.
The Al Horn Award Winner for 2015
In Key West each year, we also present the Al Horn Award — our lifetime achievement award, named after an early NORML attorney, an outstanding criminal defense lawyer who ran a progressive law collective in Atlanta, GA — to an NLC lawyer who has demonstrated an extraordinary lifetime commitment to justice. Prior award winners have included an array of dedicated men and women from all around the country who have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to representing individuals charged with a crime, and to ending marijuana prohibition.
This year the award will be given to Calvin K. Williams from Colby, Kansas. A long-time NLC member and a regular at our legal seminars in both Aspen and Key West, both as an attendee and as a speaker, for many years Cal has been serving on the frontline of the war against marijuana smokers. His specialty has been representing those individuals stopped under the guise of a traffic violation on Interstate I-70, and subsequently arrested for possession of some weed, usually discovered only after the officer claimed he smelled marijuana.
Where marijuana remains a crime, an officer who claims to have smelled marijuana has the legal right to search the passenger compartment of an automobile without a search warrant. It is “the big lie” that all police officers learn to utilize early; when the driver rolls down the window, claim you smell marijuana and you can avoid the 4th Amendment and search without a warrant.
Cal Williams in his career has represented more than 1,200 drivers stopped along I-70 (they are so common he calls them “road cases”), many of the cars searched illegally based on the purported smell of marijuana. And over those many years, only one of those individuals (one who had some prior drug felonies on his record) ended up serving time in prison. “A few others,” he adds, “screwed-up on probation and ended up serving a portion of their sentence”.
Were I in need of a good criminal defense attorney in Kansas, I would be delighted to be represented by Cal Williams, knowing I had a committed and experienced advocate arguing on my behalf.
Join Us In Key West
Let me encourage any criminal defense attorney, or marijuana business attorney, reading this, who is not already a member of the NORML Legal Committee, to consider joining the NLC; and encourage any criminal defense attorneys who have not yet attended one of our two annual legal seminars, to take the plunge. You will be glad you did, and you will find a supportive and helpful legal community.
And the next time you find yourself in need of a good criminal defense attorney because of a drug arrest, go to the NORML website and take a look at the NORML Legal Committee attorneys from your state. If I am a defendant in a marijuana case (and I have been), I want my lawyer to understand there is nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults. That’s not the only thing a smoker should look for when selecting an attorney, but that is the first thing. With NLC attorneys, that is not an issue.
This column originally appeared on Marijuana.com.