Laura Kriho and Jury Nullification

Laura Kriho is someone who I only needed to meet once to learn one of the most important things about our judicial system, and how it can help create change when those in the Legislative and Executive Branch are uncooperative.  It seems to have become more laura-kriho-black-and-whiterelevant now than when the purpose was to legalize hemp and cannabis, but the principles are the same. We the people, as jurists, have the power to vote on laws passed by legislatures and nullify it if we see fit.  A jury can say the facts point to a violation of the law, but can choose not to convict if they feel the law itself is wrong.

It’s called Jury Nullification.

If you don’t recall this from Civics Class, you aren’t alone.

It’s a power that most do not recognize or hear about, and most are afraid to use if they do.  But, I believe that while many give credit to law firms in Colorado for legalization of cannabis and hemp, I believe the tide turned with Laura Kriho standing up for this right in the face of a judicial system that attempted to make her actions a form of contempt of court – with a $1200 fine.

The Court was not kind to her, and set out to make an example of her.  And, like many people experience, the entire process is stressful, demeaning, and extremely expensive. Most people would give up, and accept a deal to escape these consequences. Only those who have strong principles will endure the hardships to stand for is truly right.

Laura Kriho is one of my life inspirations because of this, and I was just telling some friends at the Women’s March in Denver about her.  I hadn’t thought about her in years, and when we started talking about people that lead protest movements, she was literally the first person that popped into my head.

I learned Laura Kriho passed a few weeks ago from a mutual friend’s Facebook post, and could hardly believe it – I had only just thought of her 3 weeks before.  She was just 52 years old, and Colorado and the USA lost one of the most passionate voices for cannabis legalization far too early.

I first “met” Laura online in 1999, as I was becoming more active in the hemp legalization movement in Colorado.  I had joined an email list called CO-HIP (Colorado Hemp Initiative Project) back when you could trust almost any stranger on the Internet.  I regularly read her emails, and was amazed at what a passionate person she was on the subject.  I got some of my favorite lines and pitches from those emails, and always found repeating what she said to be effective.

She was instrumental in the Amendment 20 effort in 2000, and I followed her lead and held a Panel Discussion on Medical Marijuana in August of 2000, which included elected officials, our sitting Sheriff, our Town Marshall Commander, a doctor, and another activist.  Amendment 20 passed that November, just after we had moved to the Front Range.

I finally got to meet Laura at a meeting in Boulder. It was the first time I had met many of the people on this list face to face.  It was like meeting your heroes, to me at least.  I got the chance to talk to Laura about jury nullification, and in one sitting, I saw the brilliance of the approach.  She encouraged me to come to Denver to speak to the Health Committee that would make the new rules after we legalized medical marijuana with Amendment 20 – a change to our Colorado Constitution that she was instrumental in developing the strategy.

The logic was pretty simple: If enough people were educated on jury nullification in a community, then even if people were arrested for the crime of possession of marijuana, a jury could simply say yes, they were in possession, but no, we will not convict and apply the penalty because the law itself is wrong.  Once this happens in enough cases, which do use up significant resources for the city, county, or state that is prosecuting the crime, the prosecutors will have a difficult time expending the budget when there are no results.

laura-kriho-2012
Laura Kriho, 2012

Now, this practice alone doesn’t change laws.  But, it did create an atmosphere in certain places, like Boulder, where it was effectively legal to possess marijuana because of the chilling effect on prosecution by use of jury nullification.  That, in turn, led to the observable fact that the prediction of doom and gloom by prohibitionists didn’t actually materialize.  And, that led to those who were not marijuana users to start to think twice about why cannabis/hemp/marijuana were illegal in the first place.  It opened the door to understanding that some in our government were lying to us.

I know, shocker.  But, for some, this was very hard for them to believe.

Now, it was no easy for Laura to do this.  She was one of the first hemp activists working for Senator Lloyd Casey, who advocated hemp legalization in Colorado.  She had the background and access to people in government, and taught me not to be afraid of engaging on the topic. Many people were afraid of the association, thinking that it would put a target on their back.  And, it’s not an unfounded fear.

When Laura was called to jury duty on a case involving illegal drugs, she wound up taking a stand against conviction because she believed that the woman arrested had the drugs planted in her purse by her boyfriend.  She told the other jurors about jury nullification, and the case wound up being a mistrial.

The Judge found out about her, and eventually fined her $1200.  She could have been sent to jail for 6 months.  But, she held her ground, and the case eventually found it’s way to an Appeals Court the found in her favor.

As we head into an era where the Executive and Legislative Branches of our government seem to have been taken over by Republicans who apparently have no shame to create laws that are oppressive to other people – minorities, people of different religions (or no religion), or those of different sexual orientations – there’s a feeling of hopelessness because there’s also a perception that many judges are either in agreement, appointed by, or sympathetic to Republicans that hold these views.

But, there is a power granted to the people in the concept of Jury Nullification that emboldens the people to rule on the laws passed, supposedly by those that represent them.  It’s a check on that legislative power, which is then enforced by those under control of the executive offices at every level.  It’s the power, as jurists, to say: “No, the law itself is wrong!”

We should all spread the word about Jury Nullification to anyone who is advocating for those who face legal uncertainty under the new Regime.  It’s clear that there are no brakes or self-reflection, let alone petition, that will slow them down.  If they hate you for your skin color, religion, or sexual orientation or even for being a woman, then your fellow citizens can help slow or reverse the oppression by refusing to convict or side with defendants on the basis of judging the law itself as being illegitimate.  Eventually, that will make prosecutors less likely to spend the money, and that, in turn will open other doors to show that maybe the laws should be overturned by legislators who actually represent the people’s views on these matters.

I don’t think this is what Laura had in mind when she was a pioneer hemp activist, but that’s the thing about those who truly lead – often their example and wisdom is universal.
She was truly one-of-a-kind, and I’m so grateful for having at least met her once. I wish her family peace and comfort knowing what a great contribution she made with her life.

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