As Montana lawmakers debated the fallout of Montana’s medical marijuana law Wednesday, some of the same points were playing out in a Missoula County courtroom.
There, an eight-woman, four-man jury found Matthew Otto, 27, guilty of a single charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs – in this case, 3 grams (well under an ounce) of marijuana. Otto faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Otto stood accused of sharing a bowl of his medical marijuana with two friends in a car traveling down Reserve Street, where the trio passed a Missoula County Sheriff’s detective on his way home from work last November.
As Otto’s trial began Wednesday, Public Defender Chris Daly told potential jurors that “a central issue to today’s case (involves) views of medical marijuana.”
Daly summed up the case against Otto as nothing more than “a puff of smoke.”
“Keep in mind that this is not benign smoke,” Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul said in response. “It’s marijuana smoke.
“It’s still controlled, people,” he said. “It’s not just free-form. It has not been legalized.” (The last medical marijuana reform bill stalled in the Montana Senate, and the chamber will focus on repealing the law.)
That jurors might have some qualms about the issue came up almost immediately during jury selection.
Both Paul and Daly questioned potential jurors closely as to their experiences with and attitudes toward marijuana – medical and otherwise. Roughly half the 24 people from whom the eventual jury was chosen raised their hands in response to a question as to whether they’d smoked marijuana. While none had medical marijuana cards, five had family members with “green” cards.
One young man said that “I honestly think the war on marijuana is the stupidest waste of money.”
Who else, Paul wondered, felt that way? Four people raised their hands.
“You’re aware that it’s a controlled substance,” Paul said.
“Oh, yeah,” a man responded.
But one woman said that “I don’t go along with it being able to be sold legally. …I think that some of it is being abused.”
She and the man who complained about the drug war were excused, as was a man who said that a truthful answer about marijuana use on a job application had cost him the position. However, another young woman who said she’d pleaded guilty 10 years earlier to pot possession ended up on the jury.
“This is a simple case,” Paul told jurors in his opening case.
Testimony from the two people with Otto that day made it murkier.
Samantha and Jordan Lambert, who was driving the car, originally told Missoula County Sheriff’s Detective Jon Gunter that they’d gotten the marijuana from Otto, according to court papers. Wednesday, they testified they didn’t remember who lit the bowl or where the marijuana in it came from.
Daly repeatedly pointed out that neither of the Lamberts was charged with possessing or distributing marijuana, even though the bowl was shared among the trio.
“The detective told me if I was honest with him about taking a hit off the pipe, I would not be in trouble,” Jordan Lambert testified.
Gunter testified that as a narcotics investigator, he felt it was more important to home in on the source of the drug.
Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Burt, who questioned Otto while Gunter was talking with the Lamberts, videotaped that encounter.
On the tape, Otto told Burt that he had a medical marijuana card and that he used cannabis for back and knee pain.
“I’ve got all kinds of pain from carrying all this equipment,” Burt replied. “… My point is, you’re doing it for the recreation.”
The point, Paul said after the trial, was that Otto’s legal marijuana became illegal the minute he gave it to someone else.
District Court Judge Dusty Deschamps had reminded jurors as they began 3 1/2 hours of deliberations that marijuana is classified as a dangerous drug and that the amount of marijuana is immaterial.
“I’m glad the jurors followed the law,” Paul said.
Otto said he thought the Lamberts’ testimony would sway the verdict in favor of acquittal. “I was sweating the whole time,” he said. “I was really surprised.”
Any case involving small amounts of marijuana makes prosecutors nervous about a jury’s verdict, Paul said. Earlier this year, so many potential jurors raised questions in a case that also involved a small amount of pot that Deschamps called a recess, during which the case was settled.
But Wednesday’s trial “was not about medical marijuana,” Gunter said. “This was about an individual who gave an illegal drug to another individual and had no right to do so.”
Deschamps set sentencing for Otto for May 3.
– Article orginaly published in The Missoulian.