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His first reefer client paid him $25 and, as the case turned out, never had to go to trial. Margolin got him off on illegal search and seizure.
Margolin, working in a converted 1920s-era house just off Sunset Boulevard — squeezed between Mirabelle restaurant and another house from the same era — today estimates he has represented 25,000 pot smokers. Among them: Timothy Leary, the late Harvard professor–turned–psychedelic guru, who was busted in Santa Ana in 1973 for possessing 2 ounces of pot. Leary thought his sentence was unfair and jail wasn't to his liking. So he decided to escape.
He climbed a fence, shimmied over power lines, shaved his head and, with the help of the radical Weathermen, flew to Algeria to join Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in exile. Leary still felt like a prisoner. He was captured in Kabul, Afghanistan, and extradited to California to face trial.
Margolin took the Leary escape case. In a novel defense, he set about trying to convince the jury that, if an unconscious prisoner were unable to understand he was committing a criminal act and therefore was innocent of committing that act, the same should hold true for Leary.
Leary was not guilty of fleeing jail, Margolin explained, because he was in the grip of a "superconscious" state brought on by LSD flashbacks.
The jury didn't buy it and found Leary guilty. The judge gave him six months, a gift under the circumstances. And Margolin went on to defend hundreds just like The Kid he's defending today, eventually becoming the oft-quoted L.A. director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"Many cases I defend are chicken shit," Margolin says, "and I've defended thousands of people.
"This case is chicken shit. I'm not trying to trash the San Fernando court. They probably just want people to know when they walk in here, they're fucked. Unfortunately, this kid is not holding good cards. He sold pot to a cop. I don't think he deserves shit. I just want to get him in and out of here and get his life going. I'm still fighting the fight. It's so stupid."
In California circa 2009, 1,639 state prison inmates — less than 1 percent of the prison population — were behind bars primarily for pot possession for sale, possessing hashish, selling pot or other marijuana-related offenses, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The yearly cost to taxpayers: $85 million, mostly for room and board. The cost to those inmates, of course, is much higher. Eighty-five million dollars isn't a ton of money in Governmentland, which is not what bothers Margolin. The life stories get to him. Why should this kid have a felony conviction for selling 10 pot seedlings? Let The Kid go back to college and grow up.
Out in the real world — beyond this crowded San Fernando courthouse — most Southern Californians consider pot on par with alcohol: fine to take a few hits. Just don't overdo, and for heaven's sake, don't drive when you partake.
But Margolin says justice is holding the line even as social attitudes about pot become more permissive. "There's not much difference in the [marijuana] laws now" compared with the 1970s, he says. "They haven't gotten softer. They've gotten tougher.
"Over the years, I have been vindicated and I've shown that marijuana is not dangerous. Pursuing these cases is a burden on the system, people's lives are ruined. In some cases, California's third-strike rule has sent people to jail for life for felony possession of marijuana," says the lawyer — whose shingle is topped with a rendering of a marijuana leaf.
Margolin adds: "Let people come out of the closet and deal with their drug problems in a sensible way. Treatment, for example. There seems to be no money for treatment but plenty for incarceration."
While The Kid waits his turn in the courtroom, Margolin pays a visit to Assistant D.A. Jeff Boxer, who's prosecuting a case two floors up. Margolin strides into the courtroom, past the rail, and sits on the edge of a chair next to Boxer at the prosecutor's table. Margolin does most of the whispering, Boxer most of the nodding.
A couple minutes, tops, and Margolin is huddling with The Kid, his parents and The Kid's girlfriend, advising The Kid to plead no contest.
That way, he'll dodge jail and a felony conviction. He'll have to do 45 days of community service, probably picking up roadside litter while wearing an orange vest. He'll be on probation for three years, but if he passes all his drug tests and stays out of trouble for 18 months, he can have his record expunged. He'll have to pay the state for the cost of his probation — about $3,000.
When Judge Nash's clerk calls The Kid's name, everything goes pretty much the way Margolin had outlined. And then Margolin makes his move.
"One final thing, your honor," Margolin says. Then he asks for a judicial allowance to let The Kid continue to smoke marijuana, due to a medical condition.
"What kind of condition?" Nash asks, sitting straight up, leaning forward and looking flushed.