A 60-year-old woman caught growing 55 pot plants in her Juneau home got the “deal of a lifetime” from prosecutors, as they called it, during her sentencing hearing last week in a case that attorneys said highlighted the topsy-turvey laws surrounding marijuana possession in Alaska.
In an unusual turn of events, Juneau District Attorney James Scott went to bat for the defendant he was prosecuting, Bonnie E. Odom, whom he described as a respected member of the community with no criminal record — despite the illegal grow operation inside her residence on Windfall Avenue off Back Loop Road.
“This is a one-off, this is a sui generis case,” Scott told Juneau District Court Judge Thomas Nave, using the Latin phrase meaning, essentially, a unique circumstance. “That’s why she’s getting an incredible deal.”
Scott had agreed to reduce the felony drug charge against Odom to a misdemeanor level, and rather than requesting jail time, he requested Odom be placed on probation for a year. On top of that, the misdemeanor conviction will be set aside if Odom successfully completes probation, which is what’s known as an “SIS,” or a suspended imposition of sentence.
So why the great deal? Scott explained it was for two reasons: one is Odom’s lack of criminal history, and two, the police would have never discovered the illegal activity if not for an unrelated incident that brought police to her front door.
“The amount of marijuana in her house was felony level grow operation, but I think (defense attorney) Mr. (Kevin) Higgins can make a cracking good case that (it) was a felony level grow operation that was necessary for a person whose a contributor to our community, inoffensive under every definition of that word in our community, whose marijuana growing operation for personal use would never have been discovered but for this event,” Scott said. “That’s why she’s getting the deal of a lifetime.”
The Juneau Police Department had discovered the grow operation in November as they were responding to a domestic violence call at Odom’s house that did not involve her. Odom was housing a quasi-homeless couple who got into an argument, which escalated to a physical altercation, while she was not home.
As the man, Bob S. Huber, was being placed in handcuffs and arrested at the house for assault, he blurted out to the police officer that Odom was growing marijuana in the house. Police later followed up on the lead and confiscated the plants and growing equipment. Prosecutors then charged her with a class “C” felony for possessing more than 25 plants, an offense that can fetch up to five years in prison but has a presumptive zero- to two-year prison sentence for someone without a prior felony conviction.
Scott noted that Alaska law allows people to possess up to 25 marijuana plants in their home, but does not provide direction how to obtain the marijuana legally. That results in making criminals out of people who are left with the choice of either entering the criminal milieu by purchasing from drug dealers or farming it themselves.
“I know that there’s an open debate on this, but I think that a case can be made that if you want to have a smokable amount of legal Alaska weed in your house under (Alaska’s landmark 1975 decision, State v.) Ravin, you have to grow and maintain a borderline felony farm in your home. I think a case could be made for that, and I think that’s this case.”
Scott added, “I’m not going to apologize for this conviction. It’s illegal to grow marijuana in felony amounts in your home, and the state now knows about it and we can’t do nothing. And this is about as close to doing nothing as we can do under the circumstances.”
The prosecutor emphasized the fact that Odom she had opened her home “out of the goodness of her heart” to vulnerable people in the community, who then brought the police with them.
“She did absolutely nothing herself offensive or bothersome to her neighbors that caused the police to be called,” Scott said. “Her houseguests did. She shouldn’t open up her home — I’ll make a judgment statement — she shouldn’t open up her house to people that will bring police there. Sadly, no good deed goes unpunished.”
Defense attorney Higgins said Odom, who is originally from Georgia and has lived in Juneau since 1985, is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran who went on to work at Bartlett Regional Hospital drawing blood for about 26 years. He said she uses marijuana for medicinal purposes.
“She has arthritis in her feet and hands, she doesn’t sleep well,” he said. “Marijuana helps with that.”
Higgins said the only thing he disagreed with Scott about was the statement that Odom should not have let people into her home. He said Juneau needs people who are willing to let in people “out of the rain,” so to speak. He said Odom is still housing the woman involved in the domestic violence incident, and is happy to do so.
Odom didn’t deny any wrongdoing during the hearing, when asked by the judge if she had anything to say before he accepted the deal.
“Pretty much everything that’s said is true,” she said. “I can’t deny much of anything ... That’s really all I have to say. I did it.”
To that last statement, Judge Nave chuckled and said he doesn’t see the need in this case to consider rehabilitation or deterrence of her and others, or the need to reaffirm societal norms.
“I don’t frankly in this case see the need for any of that,” he said to Odom. “Technically, it’s illegal because of the amount. I’m sure you’ll adjust that in the future.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.