By Claire Bernish
Attorney Sarah Swain often compares herself to Wonder Woman in posts on Facebook, but the comparison isn’t simply hollow braggadocio — what she has contributed toward the legalization of cannabis is nothing short of amazing. Better yet, she isn’t a quitter, and she has a surefire way to ensure the miracle plant will be legal and available for all who need it in the United States — and you can help.
Swain made headlines when she successfully defended Kyler Carriker against an absurdly trumped-up murder charge stemming from an arranged cannabis transaction gone horribly wrong, which you can read more about here, with the backstory here. She also successfully prevented U.S. Marine Corps veteran Kristoffer Lewandowski — whom she represented pro bono — from spending the rest of his life behind bars for possession of marijuana which he was using to treat his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Swain currently represents Kansas mother Shona Banda, who potentially faces decades in prison for using medical pot to treat her debilitating Crohn’s Disease — and whose son has been stolen from her by authorities who somehow justify their actions as having his interests in mind.
The Free Thought Project recently had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with this real-life Wonder Woman — who explained how close we truly are to ending the government’s War on Cannabis, which would more aptly be described as a War on the People.
Sarah Swain’s father, a military veteran, spent “nearly 20 years” attempting to win his disability case without any assistance from the Veterans Administration — which seems to have been designed to create problems for the very people it’s ostensibly tasked with helping.
“At the time, I don’t know that I would’ve understood how that created the fire that burns in my belly, but when you watch someone like that … where they’re forced to take on the government all alone, it certainly — for me, at least — created this burning desire to stick it to The Man, at all times, as much as humanly possible. And I love getting to be the person who stands next to my clients who says to the prosecutor or the judge, ‘You know what? You’re going to have to go through me to get to him.’ Because my dad never had anyone like that. He was doing it all on his own, and eventually he prevailed.”
Though Swain describes herself as an advocate more than an activist, she says her career — at this point — has begun to “branch into activism,” particularly because, as she put it, “Our fucking criminal justice system is broken … Our system is broken and it needs to be fixed and I don’t hear anyone talking about that. People need to be talking about that.
“I made a post [to Facebook] last week about Making a Murderer, and everyone’s [saying] ‘Oh, Sarah, omg have you seen it, you’re going to be outraged!’ and I say to them, ‘I’m outraged all day, every day, already. I don’t have to watch Making a Murderer, I live Making a Murderer’ — except that, I’m the one making sure they’re not making my clients murderers.”
Swain laments the lack of lawyers entering the field of law to defend people against the broken and corrupted system, instead of the “plead-’em-out” attorneys she encounters in droves, motivated solely by a paycheck — who are just “helping the government ruin all of these people’s lives.”
In fact, the stereotype of the slimy lawyer defending an endless string of guilty clients trying to escape punishment for their crimes couldn’t be further from the truth. As Swain explained, the job of criminal defense attorney is “incredibly important.” Those lawyers who neglect to actually do their job — those who almost exclusively tell their clients to plead guilty instead of going to trial — are the reason we end up with cases like that portrayed in Making a Murder.
“How do you think innocent people end up in prison?” she asked. “It’s because of shitty defense attorneys, corrupt prosecutors, cops that are willing to lie, and judges that just don’t give a fuck. That’s the perfect storm. I refuse to be part of that.”
As Swain explained, the criminal justice system is rife with apathy by those tasked with ensuring the right people — the actual criminals — wind up in jail. Instead, even the most negligible effort — by police, attorneys, and judges — is often entirely absent. Unfortunately for many, once an allegation of criminal activity has been levied against an individual, the justice system essentially rubber-stamps the claim. Typically, the police or investigators “don’t want to find things that prove to them that people are lying to them or making false allegations. They only want to find evidence — they only look for and gather the [evidence] they think will support these allegations.” People should be infuriated. As Swain explained, she often tells jurors in her closing arguments at trial, “It’s your taxpayer dollars that are paying for these shitty, corrupt, lazy cops doing shitty, corrupt, lazy investigations.”
Currently, the system functions to simply “lock everyone up and throw away the key,” instead of actually ensuring those guilty of violent crime serve time. To see how that system has been turned on end — where it functions more as guilty until proven innocent — Swain says all you need to examine are “exorbitant” bonds, often hundreds of thousands of dollars, handed down to non-violent “criminals.”
But besides the malfunctioning system, there is another formidable foe in the effort to dismantle the War on Drugs — infighting; which as she says, is “the number one reason why this fight [against cannabis prohibition] is still being fought in 2016. The more that we all work together — even if we don’t all agree on the particulars of how it needs to happen, as long as we all know that it needs to happen, and we’re all doing our part to push it forward — we would be so much further ahead than we are.”
Though before taking on the case of Shona Banda last March, Swain didn’t consider herself to be a cannabis activist and wasn’t intimately familiar with the legal history of marijuana prohibition, she has since come to understand that “of course [cannabis] is medicine” and needs to be “legalized.”
Now, when people try to argue with her against legalization of cannabis, “There is no argument. It is medicine. It does need to be legal in every state; people need to be able to access it.” Using her father’s treatment of his PTSD with cannabis as an example, she says legalization needs to happen “if for no other reason than if we’re going to send people overseas, armed with guns, grenades and have them kill people on behalf of the U.S. government, then they should be able to come back and smoke a fucking joint to be able to deal with” the trauma that results from their military service.
In order to make legalization a reality, Swain says, people will have to begin to take the reins — instead of preaching to the choir or simply protesting, we need attorneys who will use the law as it was meant to be used to defend medical necessity. We should be writing letters by the thousands to elected officials; and, most of all, we need to spend the time necessary and work together to make the change happen.
Jury nullification has become a hot topic recently, but Swain feels the method should only be used as a “last ditch” effort when all else fails, because there are many avenues available within the legal system. Specifically, advocating for medical necessity — which are far more effective and helpful toward the eventual legalization of cannabis.
For those of us who aren’t lawyers, there are viable options which Swain feels need to be taken advantage of:
“I really like this organization called The Human Solution, out of California. They have come up with Court Support — which sounds very simple — but it’s the idea that when people have these cases that can change the way everybody in an entire state or in the entire federal system are being treated, you have to people show up to court to show support, to protest out front [of the courthouse], to bring media attention to particular cases. And it’s brilliant — an incredibly brilliant but simple idea. So, if you’re interested in moving these issues forward, watch the news, watch the papers … I’ve found as an attorney, I have to make sure the media is paying attention to [these cases] — because if it’s not being reported in the news, it may as well not be happening.” She adds that, even in areas where cannabis might not be a well-known issue, “people take the time to listen, they care, and they are disturbed by what they hear,” as in the case of Kyler Carriker, where the prosecutor essentially targeted him to make an example for no justifiable reason.
One prosecutor took Swain off guard by telling her that if more defense attorneys pressed the issue of medical pot for their clients at trial, where they would likely be successful, prosecutors would pass the message along to police that pressing charges for such offenses is a waste of time and money. This prosecutor told her, “Sarah, I couldn’t agree with you more, I think weed should be legal, I believe it’s medicine, and I’ve been begging defense attorneys to try these cases; but I can’t get any defense attorneys to try these cases. Because what I can do, if we tried some of these cases and juries say ‘nope, we’re not going to convict on that,’ then I can tell my police officers, ‘you know what, stop arresting people for that.’” In that way — once police stop hauling people into court over useless drug laws — policy will undergo a transformation without the need to change the law, itself.
As vital as Sarah Swain has been and continues to be for the movement to end cannabis prohibition, she insists she isn’t a genius — but she puts forth the effort and works incredibly hard to ensure justice is served in a system almost wholly devoid of fairness. And she welcomes anyone willing to set aside petty differences aboard the “Swain Train” to also be the change. She is truly an inspiration for all of us; and, as she explains, “I’m going to make this happen — whether I have five people behind me or five million — I’m going to make it happen.”
We don’t doubt it for a second.
Many thanks to attorney Sarah Swain for taking the time to speak with us at The Free Thought Project.