Nov 16, 2007

Attorney Argues For Rastafarian Client



Karen Florin
The Day (CT)

November 16, 2007

Judge Doesn't Buy That Marijuana Is A 'God-Given Right'

Defense attorney Ronald F. Stevens' presentation in New London Superior Court Thursday could have been called “Marijuana 101.”

His client, 42-year-old Vernon Smith of Norwich, had pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of marijuana with intent to sell after police found him with more than 20 pounds of the drug earlier this year.

As a Rastafarian who believes that selling, trading and possessing marijuana is “a God-given right,” Smith had asked his lawyer to argue his point of view in an attempt to reduce the state's recommended sentence of seven years in prison, suspended after 30 months served and three years probation.

Smith, a father of seven from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, is a “Mr. Mom” who takes care of the kids while his wife works and supplements his income by selling marijuana, Stevens said. He does not sell to children, the attorney said.

This was Smith's third conviction, and it was his second time in front of Judge Susan B. Handy. Stevens acknowledged the judge had to follow the law, but said he had to advocate for his client.

“Mr. Smith firmly believes in his heart of hearts and in his religious and cultural convictions that marijuana is part of his human rights,” Stevens said. “He wants to fight the good fight for the legalization of marijuana.”

Stevens said he listened to audio tapes, watched television specials and read up on the history of marijuana and the Rastafarian religion. Marijuana was legal until the 1930s, he said. He referenced Supreme Court decisions involving Rastafarians and their use of marijuana. He recited a poem on his client's behalf and quoted from a Biblical passage about “the herb of life.” He said Rastafarians consider marijuana or “ganja” to be “wisdom weed.”

After referencing the Prohibition period, when alcohol was illegal but marijuana was not, Stevens said that in his practice, “I see more problems with alcohol than I've seen with marijuana, frankly.”

Stevens said his client's beliefs had made him the victim of a violent crime. Two men, whose cases are pending in the same New London court, had entered Smith's home in May while his parents were visiting from St. Croix and held guns to their heads. While police were investigating, Smith admitted he had marijuana in the home. Police recovered four ounces, and were holding a warrant for his arrest when he was pulled over and found with 20 pounds of the drug.

Smith, who wore a white robe and a tri-colored headwrap to his court appearances, said he has always tried to set a good example for his people and has followed the Ten Commandments. He does not consider himself a criminal.

“I know that the law is such in this country, but I feel one day the law will change, especially with people who indulge in marijuana and are not violent,” he said. He knows many people who use marijuana to relax and meditate, he said.

Knowing Stevens was about to make the argument, prosecutor John P. Gravalec-Pannone had said that the proper place for it would be the legislature. He also said that in his experience, the dealing of marijuana and the potency of it when mixed with other substances has led to violent crimes, including murder.

“The law is the law,” Pannone said.

Handy said she had respect for Smith's religion, but that he could not use it to hide his criminal behavior. She did not reduce his sentence. She said that as long as marijuana is illegal, possessing, using and selling it is criminal.

“That home invasion was because of what you do, which is criminal activity,” she said. “You, sir, put your children, your wife and your visiting parents at risk because you sell drugs.”

k.florin@theday.com

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