Reefer activism: 2.6-ounce possessor fights back in Drug War
Here's what Jordan McNeish learned after nearly half a year in jail: "There are two classes of people: people who have done something they think they should be in jail for, and people who think the system completely mocks justice."
Unsurprisingly, McNeish, 23, falls into the latter category. After serving his time, he estimates that the cost to taxpayers to incarcerate him was $17,000.
That was the punishment for getting nabbed with around $400 worth of marijuana after police caught the then 20-year-old at home with a beer in his hand after a noise complaint.
"In Virginia, more than half an ounce is felony intent to distribute," explains McNeish. "I had 2.6 ounces."
Not two pounds. Not two kilos. Not two tons. He says the baggies that police found in a kitchen cabinet next to the aluminum foil were considered evidence of his intent to distribute the 2.6 ounces.
McNeish would learn that felons in Virginia permanently lose their right to vote; but after participating in last fall's Occupy Charlottesville movement, he also learned something else.
"I could have more influence going before City Council than voting every two years," he says.
And that's why he began speaking up before Council. On May 7, Council voted 3-2 to approve part of his suggestion– to ask the governor and General Assembly to revisit possession penalties and to consider regulating marijuana like alcohol.
Councilor Dave Norris calls the resolution McNeish inspired "very reasonable and well-thought out." And Norris contends that McNeish's firsthand experience with the criminal justice system gives him some standing on the issue.
"We should not be putting responsible adults in jail," says Norris, "for use of a recreational drug."
Two councilors expressed concern about what message the resolution might send to children.
"I think that was completely irrelevant," says McNeish. "By no means did the measure advocate that it's healthy to use marijuana. The message should be that we should use empiricism in our decision making rather than a blanket yes or no."
Having grown up in nearby Nelson County, McNeish was living in Charlottesville and attending Piedmont Virginia Community College in January 2009 when he got busted. Sentenced to five years with all but six months suspended, he was jailed in April of 2010, unable to sway the judge to let him attend that year's fall classes.
"I would have graduated by now," says the young man interested in journalism and anthropology– fields he hopes he's not shut out of due to his felony conviction. He says he feels fortunate to have a job doing auto restoration, because many felons can't obtain employment.
As for his own pot use, McNeish says, "I can't enjoy it anymore." He adds, "And I'm on probation for five years."
Still galvanized, McNeish held the first meeting of the Jefferson Area NORML– National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws– on May 22. Five "very dedicated people" met at Baja Bean, he says.
Next, he'd like to have activists go before every jurisdiction in the area with the same resolution he took to City Council, and then move on to the state level.
"Before something like this changes laws," he observes, "it has to be talked about."Attached Documents: