BALTIMORE — Mitzi Wall had waited two years for this moment, and now, as the jury deliberated upstairs, all she could do was roam the courthouse lobby.
“I just started folding the layers back and diving deeper and deeper into it,” Wall said. “I thought we were a just and moral country who prosecuted people for violent crimes.”
Jonathan Wall’s first lawyer wanted him to take a plea bargain, Mitzi Wall said, just as the 10 other co-conspirators charged in the case did. But no one, he and his family had come to believe, should go to prison for marijuana.
To Mitzi Wall, her son’s case underscored the complexities of this moment in the country’s marijuana debate. A strong majority of Americans, 68 percent, now supported legalization. Eighteen states plus D.C. already had legalized recreational possession, and Maryland voters, the jurors among them, will decide this November whether to follow suit. Yet the drug remains federally illegal, yielding a patchwork system that means those with the proper licensing in the right state can make millions of dollars off the booming industry, while others, like Jonathan Wall, face prison time.
“Black-market cannabis, medicinal cannabis and recreational cannabis — the difference between them all is a stamp by bureaucracy,” he said.
But the Walls never got to make that argument in court. Instead, the jury heard testimony from a sheriff’s corporal and Jonathan Wall’s alleged co-conspirators: friends, acquaintances and customers who prosecutors said were in on an expansive enterprise to ship hundreds of pounds of weed from California to Baltimore.
“This is not a case about marijuana possession,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anatoly Smolkin said during closing arguments. “This is a case about a drug conspiracy to distribute massive amounts of marijuana around the country.”
Downstairs afterward, Mitzi Wall leaned on the window and looked out onto the rainy city street. She worried the jury would rush to wrap the trial before Mother’s Day weekend.
An hour and a half later, the news came in.
A stifled strategy
White and upper-middle-class, Jonathan Wall doesn’t reflect the communities most impacted most by the war on drugs, and he knows it. Black Americans have been arrested at 3.64 times the rate of White people for having marijuana, even though they use it at similar rates, according to an American Civil Liberties Union review of charges between 2010 and 2018.
“I’m just an example of what has happened to so many other Americans, the majority of whom have not gotten the attention I’ve gotten, primarily because of their skin color,” Wall, 27, said.
He had grown up with his mother, father and sister in the suburbs of Baltimore before dropping out of high school in Harford County, getting his GED and moving to California to get into the cannabis industry. According to witnesses and prosecutors, he had been selling pot in Baltimore before he moved, too.
As more states have begun legalizing cannabis, federal marijuana trafficking cases like Wall’s have been declining. In 2021, the United States Sentencing Commission reported just under 1,000 such cases, less than a third of the total reported in 2016. Overall, only about 2 percent of federal criminal defendants actually go to trial; of those, 17 percent are acquitted.
But Wall told his mother he “was not going to prison for a plant.”
Indicted in 2019 for conspiring to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, he fled to Guatemala. Wall says it wasn’t a permanent move: If he waited, he thought, maybe the political climate would change; maybe marijuana would be federally legal by the time he came back.
He returned and turned himself in in June 2020, the same year that four more states legalized recreational weed. Another four did it in 2021, as he awaited trial. The month before opening statements, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would federally decriminalize marijuana, which remains categorized as a schedule I drug alongside LSD and heroin.
Wall and his attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, hoped to ride that momentum and secure an acquittal by “jury nullification.” The practice, which was common in D.C. drug cases in the 1990s, allows jurors to send a message about what they think of the law, or take a stand against disparate enforcement, explained Paul Butler, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.
If the jury acquitted Wall, “it would just prove the point that the vast majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal,” said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
But prosecutors undercut the attempt.
“The fact that other jurisdictions have legalized marijuana, decriminalized marijuana, are considering decriminalization of certain quantities of marijuana, or have declined to prosecute individuals for crimes involving marijuana, is not relevant to the issues at this trial,” they argued in a pretrial motion.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher, appointed by President Donald Trump, agreed. Mentions of the cannabis legalization movement at Wall’s trial were barred.
‘You can’t unknow that’
The ruling left much unsaid about marijuana and criminal justice that Mitzi Wall had come to learn. A retired federal government employee, she had started working after the indictment with a nonprofit that provides resources to those charged with marijuana offenses and to their families. She facilitated Christmas shopping sprees for inmates’ children.
“It started with Jonathan, but now it’s for everybody,” she said of her advocacy, “because once you know these things, you can’t unknow that.”
That makes her a part of her son’s argument, too.
“Seeing how strong of an advocate she’s become, obviously with what’s happened to her son, kind of shows where I think a lot of middle America stands on the same issue,” Jonathan Wall said.
Drug policy experts say the number of people serving prison time for simple possession alone is likely very small. But many with heavier charges, such as distribution, remain in prison even in states that have legalized it.
“A lot of people think that when legalization passes, the prison doors open for people that are serving for marijuana,” said Gracie Burger, the state policy director for the nonprofit Last Prisoner Project. “And that’s not true.”
During the trial last week, with friends and family behind him, Wall spent five days listening to childhood friends and roommates tell the jury about their days selling marijuana together in Baltimore. Prosecutors displayed photos of wads of cash in stash houses, showed Excel sheets of the inventory for dozens of strains of the plant.
Flores-Williams argued that the government had no hard evidence: no DNA, no photos of Wall. But because it was a conspiracy case, prosecutors said, they didn’t need it. They just had to prove that Wall had entered an “agreement to distribute or possess with the intent to distribute marijuana,” and they argued that’s exactly what Wall had done.
Deputies had seized $860,000 from one stash house in the Baltimore area alone, and the enterprise was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more, prosecutors said. Wall alone had $98,000 in cash seized at an airport in San Francisco.
“They took it from him because it was drug money,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Romano said.
The verdict lands
In closing arguments, Flores-Williams hazarded that it was unreasonable for law enforcement to still be using resources to “break down doors in a raid to charge people for marijuana.” Prosecutors quickly objected. It was as close to discussing the legalization movement as Wall’s team got.
Mitzi Wall joined their family afterward in the lobby, where they waited for the call to come back upstairs. When it came, she got into the elevator and took a deep breath before the doors to the seventh floor opened.
Minutes later, the jury delivered its verdict: It had found Jonathan guilty.
Mitzi Wall’s head fell, and her eyes filled with tears. Jonathan was taken back into custody. Flores-Williams quietly slung his bag over his shoulder and made his way out of the courthouse.
“Ultimately, this was a referendum on whether or not Americans would still incarcerate people for pot,” he said. “The answer is: Yes, they will.”
Flores-Williams moved to withdraw from the case immediately after the verdict, leaving Wall without legal representation while he awaits sentencing. Wall had turned down a plea deal of six years, he said. The minimum sentencing guideline for his conviction is 10 years to life.
“I don’t know,” Wall said, when asked whether he regretted going to trial. “Maybe ask me after sentencing. If they hit me with 20 years, yeah, I’m probably going to regret it.”
Mitzi Wall already did.
Her Mother’s Day weekend ended up quiet, much of it spent reflecting on the case and all that had gone wrong. She wished her son had taken the plea.
“I knew it was going to be hard to fight them, but I didn’t know it was going to be that hard,” she said. “I guess I had hoped I was the one living in a bubble, not everyone else.”
She plans to get back to helping those with marijuana convictions, she said, but not right away. She needs to process her son’s first.