MISSOULA — Jason Washington, a former University of Montana quarterback turned businessman and medical-marijuana entrepreneur, was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison on federal drug charges.
That’s substantially more severe than the penalties for Washington’s six co-defendants in the case, but less than the five years in prison proposed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Elliott.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen rejected a request from Washington’s attorney, Kwame Manley of Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., to sentence his client to probation and community service modeled on charity work Washington did while playing for the Grizzlies.
“There is an aspect of this case that I find troubling, and it has continued to trouble me,” said the judge, who noted that he has handled several medical-marijuana cases in his 16 month on the federal bench.
“Although there was generally an attempt to comply with state law, you appear to have walked a pretty fine line ... and in many cases went over the line,” the judge told Washington.
Although state law was of course not a factor in the case against Washington, Christensen noted it has been taken into account in federal cases in states where the medical use of marijuana is legal, as it is in Montana. Federal law holds any use of marijuana to be illegal.
Federal agents raided Washington’s businesses — a large marijuana grow operation at the Wye, the Big Sky Health medical cannabis dispensary on Reserve Street and his 406 Motoring automotive shop — in November 2011.
Washington and six co-defendants originally faced the same drug charges that carried sentences of up to 40 years in prison and a $5 million fine on each charge.
But five of the six pleaded guilty to conspiracy to maintain drug-involved premises, and the indictment against the sixth was thrown out. The others were sentenced to either probation or time served, with the longest prison sentence 125 days.
“All of those people are sitting at home,” Manley said Wednesday.
Washington, however, insisted upon going to trial and in January was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Jurors acquitted him of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Several former business associates received immunity for testifying against him.
“An injustice ... a travesty,” Washington’s mother, Charlene Washington, called Wednesday’s sentence, pointing out the lighter sentences and the immunity for the others involved in the case.
Washington himself told the judge he had fully accepted responsibility for his actions, and he apologized the court and his family for them.
He also sought leniency. “If I was some Mexican drug cartel runner, I would expect you to sentence me to five years in prison,” he said. But, he added, “me being in jail, that’s a waste. That’s a burden on taxpayers’ dollars, for what?”
He broke down in tears describing how he’d procured tickets to Grizzlies games for children with cancer, and bought them Griz gear with his own money. “I had to buy all that stuff on a scholarship that wasn’t that much,” he said. He also said he bought laptops for poor children to give them a boost in school.
Washington played for the Grizzlies in 2005 before being hurt, and sat out the 2006 season because of the injury.
Manley said he expected federal prosecutors — who saw their proposed five-year sentence shot down — would appeal. (Washington waived his own right to appeal.)
“This case will be a battle for a very long time,” Manley said.
Even Christensen said that “I think I have a pretty good idea where this sentencing is on its way to — the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Christensen also sentenced Washington to four years of supervision after his release from prison, and imposed $200 in court fees. Although no fine was imposed, Washington still faces restitution payments of more than $233,000.
After the judge pronounced his sentence, Manley asked that his client be given some time to settle his affairs before reporting to federal prison. But Christensen ordered that Washington be taken into custody immediately.
As federal marshals fitted handcuffs onto his wrists, his mother tearfully asked to be allowed to hug him.
“Sorry, ma’am,” a marshal said. And he led Washington away.