‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.
A handful of jurors did a remarkable thing in a New Orleans courtroom last week. I hope you’ll think about it the next time you’re called for jury duty.
Jurors in New Orleans did a noble thing: They refused to try a man for possessing cannabis on Bourbon Street.
On Tuesday, Jabar Kensey, a server at the city’s famous French Quarter restaurant Antoine’s, went on trial for possessing an ounce of cannabis on Bourbon Street.
An entire novel could unfold from that premise.
If you’ve ever dined at Antoine’s—and I have—you know it’s a singular New Orleans experience. The 175-year-old establishment offers a spectacular dining room fitted with plush green walls, gilded mirrors, and an ancient tile floor. The black-tied waitstaff offers each diner a legendary level of service. Old New Orleans families form personal relationships with Antoine’s waiters that span decades. Years ago when I enjoyed a plate of fresh oysters, gentlemen were required to don a jacket at all times. If you had none, one was provided. As an unprepared young lad, I made use of a loaner from the rack. (The policy was quietly dropped a few years ago.)
C’mon, this is Bourbon Street
So when I say Jabar Kensey went on trial for possession, know that Mr. Kensey is a respected professional in his home town.
Know also that Bourbon Street is world-renowned for its encouragement of minor vices. Tourists are exhorted to guzzle booze openly in the street. Public nudity is rewarded with cheers and trinkets.
Louisiana, America’s prison state
At the same time, Louisiana is America’s most notorious incarceration state.
For decades the state’s (mostly white) law enforcement establishment has locked up an unconscionably high percentage of the state’s black population. Cannabis has often provided the excuse.
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A few years ago Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and other state officials were exposed for their indefensible treatment of Bernard Noble, a middle-aged truck driver sentenced to 13 years in prison for possessing two joints while riding a bicycle. We covered his case extensively here at Leafly. It was like something out of Les Miserables.
Last Tuesday, Leon Cannizzaro tried to do it again.
Cruel sentences are all too common
Cannizzaro loves to “triple bill” defendants. He uses the state’s medieval three-strikes law to put low-level offenders in prison with double-digit sentences. Cannizzaro gets away with it in part because his parish’s public defender office is cripplingly understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed. Because of two prior non-violent convictions, Jabar Kensey faced a potential sentence of 15 to 20 years in Louisiana’s notoriously brutal prison system.
So into court went Antoine’s waiter Jabar Kensey, his life on the line for holding a product that’s legal and available seven days a week in ten American states.
The trial begins…
Jury selection began. One after another, residents of Orleans Parish appeared before a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and Judge Dennis Waldron.
One after another, jurors were dismissed because they refused to consider a felony charge.
One after another, many of the jurors were excused. Why? Because they believed it was wrong for the state to send a man to prison for a decade for possessing an ounce of weed.
By the end of the afternoon, 20 of 25 potential jurors had been dropped. No more were available from the daily pool. Judge Waldron told Matt Sledge, a reporter for The Advocate, that a “significant” number of jurors had been dismissed by the prosecutor because they refused to consider a felony charge for cannabis. Waldron said many jurors spoke up about the injustice of Louisiana’s archaic marijuana laws.
Faced with a potential mistrial, the D.A.’s office cut a deal with Kensey. The Antoine’s waiter agreed to serve 12 weekend days in jail and forfeit $100 in cash.
‘An appropriate solution’
Kensey’s attorney, Stavros Panagoulopoulos, told The Advocate that the jurors sent a clear message to Cannizzaro. “I think the District Attorney’s office heard [the jury’s] sentiments,” Panagoulopoulos said. “Given the current climate in our country with regards to marijuana, I think this was an appropriate solution.”
If common sense prevails, the Kensey case may help close the book on New Orleans’s shameful history of marijuana prosecution and over-incarceration.
Matt Sledge reports that no defendants were tried solely on marijuana charges in Orleans Parish in 2017 or 2018. Bernard Noble was finally paroled, to national acclaim, in early 2018. Coincidence? Maybe. But the fact is, Noble’s case made Leon Cannizzaro’s name synonymous with cruelty and injustice. Why the D.A. would seek to reprise his most infamous case is a mystery. Maybe it’s like the fable about the scorpion and the frog: It is his nature. Fortunately, this time the residents of Orleans Parish were bold enough to push back.
‘People have the power’ isn’t just a song lyric
Know this, my fellow jury-eligible citizens: You have the power to stop the madness.
You're a grown adult. You have a moral duty to stop injustice when you can. Serve on a jury.
Despite the continuing expansion of legalization, cannabis arrests are actually increasing nationwide. Prohibition is sunsetting, and deputies in prohibition states are getting their last licks in. Earlier this month the FBI released its annual report on crime. In 2018, law enforcement made 663,367 cannabis arrests. That’s more than one every minute. More than 90% of those arrests were for simple possession.
For some of us, a jury notice inspires a feeling of dread. Too many people grab any excuse to get out of it, which is a shame.
I’ve served on a jury. It’s fascinating. It’s inspiring. If you’re reading this, you’re a grown-ass adult. You have a duty to make the wheels of justice turn in a righteous direction. And as the people of New Orleans demonstrated last week, you have the power to stop injustice in its tracks.