JOHN RAY WILSON CLAIM IS SHOT DOWN IN NEW JERSEY
Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger
John Ray Wilson appears in court in a March 2010 file photo. Wilson cannot claim he cultivated marijuana plants for his personal use, an appellate court panel ruled Tuesday.
FRANKLIN — A multiple sclerosis patient facing a five-year prison sentence for growing marijuana plants in his backyard cannot claim he cultivated them for his personal use, an appellate court panel ruled Tuesday.
The ruling, which comes a week after Gov. Chris Christie approved the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, upholds the conviction of the Somerset County man, John Ray Wilson, and probably ends his appeal in a case watched closely by advocates of the drug’s legalization for medicinal purposes.
“The law came a couple years too late for John Wilson,” his lawyer, James Wronko, said. “He was in a situation where he had no health insurance and no other way to obtain medical treatment.”
Wilson, 38, was arrested in 2008 after he was caught growing 17 plants behind his rental home in Franklin Township. He was charged with maintaining or operating a drug-production facility, an offense for which he could have received a 20-year sentence. A jury acquitted him of that charge, but he was convicted of manufacturing and possessing the drug.
At his trial, Wilson wanted Superior Court Judge Robert Reed to allow him to tell jurors he grew the plants for his personal use to relieve the symptoms of multiple scleroris, including spasticity and stiffness — not to sell them. He also wanted Reed to allow an expert to testify about the medicinal benefits of the herb.
Reed did not allow the expert testimony, however, letting Wilson testify only that he told police he used the drug to counteract the effects of his disease.
In today’s ruling, the appellate panel said Reed had ruled correctly. Writing for the court, Judge Ronald Graves said someone accused of manufacturing a drug cannot claim “personal use.”
In his appeal, Wilson — who for nine years has suffered from the debilitating disease affecting the brain and spinal chord — also claimed the sentence was too harsh. But the argument was rejected by the appellate panel, which also included Judges Philip Carchman and Carmen Messano.
“He wasn’t selling it,” Wilson’s father, Ray Wilson, of Pittsgrove in Salem County, said afterward. “He wasn’t distributing it. He wasn’t giving it to anyone, and they made him a class-one criminal. Their priorities are all wrong.”
But Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the court followed the law.
The three-year-long case became a test for the courts, something the appellate panel addressed in its ruling. The judges noted that because New Jersey courts had never before addressed the issue, they had to look to decisions in Arkansas, Michigan, Nebraska and North Carolina.
But to groups that advocate the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the ruling made no sense.
“To know that a safe and inexpensive herb like marijuana is able to relieve the pain and spasticity of MS and to actually arrest the progression of this incurable disease is a compelling reason to use it therapeutically,” said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey. “It is an outrage that Wilson will spend many years in the prison system for this, especially since the law in New Jersey now specifically protects MS patients who use medical marijuana.”
Wronko said Wilson, who has been free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal, is not planning to ask the state Supreme Court to take his case. He said that if Wilson were accepted into state Probation Department’s intensive supervision program, he could be freed in four to six months.
After his release, the lawyer said, Wilson plans to apply for acceptance into the state’s medical marijuana program, which could be in place by the end of the year.
“He’s looking forward to putting this behind him and getting on with his life,” Wronko said.