Krissy Oechslin is assistant director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, www.mpp.org.
A little over a year ago, a 10-day jail sentence turned into the death penalty for 27-year-old Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic who died a death of neglect when a Washington, D.C., jail could not accommodate his medical needs.
What did Magbie do to be put in jail in the first place? He used marijuana to feel better and got caught with a single marijuana cigarette, a crime for which he was sentenced to jail. His case is a glaring example of the harm -- in this case, the ultimate harm -- that marijuana prohibition causes.
Magbie had been confined to a mouth-operated wheelchair since the age of four, when a drunk driver struck the car in which he was riding. The accident stunted his growth: He was barely five feet tall and 120 pounds. He required nursing care almost constantly and frequently used a ventilator to breathe.
When Magbie ran afoul of the law, he was a passenger in a car that contained a marijuana cigarette, cocaine, and a loaded gun. The cocaine and gun charges against Magbie were dropped because he had no criminal record and he readily confessed to having purchased the marijuana.
Magbie pleaded guilty to marijuana possession but told D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin that he found nothing wrong with using marijuana to ease his discomfort and would continue to do so. Retchin admonished Magbie, reminding him that marijuana is still illegal.
The sad irony here, of course, is that D.C. voters passed a medical marijuana initiative in 1998 with 69% of the vote, but Congress has blocked the measure from taking effect.
In sentencing Magbie to 10 days' imprisonment, Retchin made it clear she was basing her decision more on the unproven, discarded gun charge than on the marijuana, saying it was "just unacceptable to be riding around in a car with a loaded gun in this city. … I believe under all the circumstances here, the appropriate sentence is ten days in jail." Never mind that Magbie could never have even used the gun because of his paralysis.
What happened next was series of bungled communications between city officials, resulting in a needless death. Magbie was sent to a city detention facility on September 24, 2004 -- the day he was sentenced. Without his ventilator, Magbie soon needed medical attention.
Nine hours went by before Magbie was transferred to a public hospital. The following day, he was returned to jail. A doctor at the jail determined that Magbie needed to go back to the hospital, but the hospital refused to take him. Judge Retchin was asked to order the hospital to admit Magbie, but she claimed she did not have the power to do so.
Magbie’s mother, Mary Scott, negotiated with city officials for two days before they let her come to the D.C. jail with his ventilator. By the time she arrived on September 24, however, Magbie’s health had taken a turn for the worse and he had already been sent back to the hospital, where he died later that night. Magbie’s mother later claimed her son had lost 40 pounds off his already-thin body due to inadequate medical care while in custody.
An investigation of Judge Retchin’s actions eventually cleared her of any wrongdoing, though another investigation cited the hospital for failure to provide adequate care. Nearly a year to the day after her son’s death, Scott filed a lawsuit against the city and the hospital, seeking $50 million in damages for the deficient care that resulted in death.
The Washington Post has followed Magbie’s sad story in its reporting and on its opinion pages, but the fact that the death of Jonathan Magbie has not made national headlines is a disgrace. Was it because there was also cocaine and a gun in the car? Was it because marijuana is, as Judge Retchin noted, illegal? Why was there no national outrage at this preventable tragedy?
Sadly, there is no clear answer as to why the agonizing death of a wheelchair-bound young man failed to attract national media attention. What is certain is that what happened to Jonathan Magbie was an abomination. No one should be sent to jail for 10 days if jail means certain death. Of course, no one should be sent to jail for 10 days for a single marijuana cigarette, period.
The city officials whose blunders led to Magbie's death have blood on their hands, as do the members of Congress who vote to treat marijuana users as criminals. The tragedy of Jonathan Magbie's death should serve as a reminder that marijuana prohibition kills.