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Legalize Weed, But Don't Forget Those Behind Bars

Corinne Gaston |
September 12, 2014 | 9:55 p.m. PDT

Deputy Opinion Editor


The discourse around legalization of marijuana is nothing new to most of us and with big dominos starting to fall with states such as Colorado and Washington decriminalizing possession, eventual widespread legalization looks to be inevitable.

However, on Aug. 8, the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) released a report proposing something even more radical in response to the War on Drugs: legalizing and regulating the possession of not just marijuana, but also psychoactive drugs and other substances such as coca leaf. The GCDP called for world leaders and lawmakers to completely reconstruct the approach to global regulation of drugs, and its recommendations include finding alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants in drug markets such as farmers, spending energy on bringing down violent, illegal drug organizations as opposed to targeting vulnerable users, ensuring more equitable access to medicine, and focusing on preventative health and social initiatives.

In a country where criminalization and repressive ideologies have failed and the War on Drugs has done little more than ruinously funnel hundreds of thousands into the jaws of the prison industrial complex, the GCDP’s call for drug decriminalization has the potential to revolutionize American society. However, a move toward mass-scale legalization, or at the very least decriminalization, would be a waste if those who are currently incarcerated for non-violent possession are not given retroactive ameliorative relief, that is, released from prison due to changes in the law after their incarceration. An example of this is Colorado, which legalized non-medical possession of marijuana in 2012, but has not moved to release those currently serving time behind bars.

READ MORE: Federal Drug Offenders Eligible For Early Release

The taking up of arms by our government, law and police to fight the War on Drugs, has resulted in an increase in nonviolent drug arrests, punitive punishments for possession, numbers of addicts who are afraid to seek help and billions of taxpayer dollars wasted while issues surrounding underfunded public schools, food inequity, infrastructure and healthcare are denied solutions. Over the years, numerous reports have been released on the effects of the War on Drugs, some lauding our government’s handling of foreign criminal drug organizations while others criticize the initiative’s lack of results for drug addiction rates and the alarming incarceration racial disparity caused by racial profiling in drug-related detainment, which often leads to arrest and imprisonment.

Different research reports now contest the exact statistics of people serving prison sentences for nonviolent marijuana possession, but what’s not contestable is that there are people currently in prison for that offense. In 2012, of the 749,825 people charged with marijuana law violations in the United States, 658,231 (88 percent) were arrested for possession only. This coupled with the fact that 61 percent of those incarcerated for a drug offense in 2012 were Black and Hispanic, despite data showing that they “use and sell drugs at similar rates to whites,” confirms that too many people are serving prison sentences for drug possession and that racial profiling has had a disparaging effect on who is targeted and punished.

READ MORE: Racial Bias in Marijuana Arrests

One would think that nonviolent personal possession of marijuana would warrant serious, but not life-wrecking consequences, however, there are people such as Jeff Mizanskey, who are serving life sentences without parole for just possessing marijuana. Mizanskey’s particular situation can mostly be blamed on Missouri’s punitive three-strikes law; if weed possession had been decriminalized before the time of his arrest, he would not be spending the rest of his life in a cage. Bernard Noble of Louisiana, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for the possession of what is the equivalent of two joints. Louisiana, a state which can punish someone for a first marijuana conviction with up to six months in jail, up to five years for the second conviction and up to a staggering 20 years for the third conviction, has utilized the law and put people behind bars for two decades for just possessing marijuana.

According to federal law, any possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor for the first and second offenses (of which, only the second has a mandatory minimum sentence), while any subsequent offense can be penalized as a felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 90 days. Both the sale and cultivation of any amount of marijuana are felonies. But as demonstrated above, each state’s unique drug laws (or three-strikes laws) can wreak true havoc on individual lives and communities.

Aside from the direct consequences of being charged with drug-possession, those charged can face the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, including being denied public housing and housing vouchers, losing the right to own a firearm, having their driver’s license suspended, losing a professional license, being deported, losing federal financial aid eligibility if they are students and most familiarly, facing discrimination when applying for jobs. And seeing as how in 2011, 501,500 people were in state prisons, federal prisons and jails on drug-related charges, these collateral penalties have a catastrophic effect on a significant percentage of the U.S. population as it reinters society, if it reinters at all.

For those naysayers who believe legalizing any type of drug, whether it’s marijuana or LSD, would destroy society, take a look at Portugal. Portugal decriminalized all drug possession on July 1, 2001, and all of the fear-mongering hellish nightmares that were predicted for Portugal (rampant drug abuse and overwhelming drug tourism) have remained unseen. In fact, the results have been, for the most part, surprisingly positive; in the 13 years since Portugal decriminalized all drug possession, Portugal’s number of addicts has been halved while overdoses and drug related diseases such STDs have decreased more than user rates. It’s true that Portugal took a huge risk, but the results speak for themselves. Decriminalizing drugs lowered drug use, the amount of addicts afraid to seek help due to fear of legal punishment and the number of people wasting away in prison for possession.

If it works, it works. And criminalizing drug users in an effort to curb cartel power and violence, lower national drug use and increase public safety does not work. Not only does it not work, but it causes harm. The War on Drugs has failed and the GCDP’s call for a progressive and holistic drug policy overhaul couldn’t have come at a better time, as views in the United States on drugs and drug policy are truly starting to change.

READ MORE: SWAT Team Critically Injures Infant During Drug Bust 

Not only do I believe that people should have sovereignty over their own bodies to decide if they want to smoke weed or ingest a regulated psychoactive drug for recreation, but regulating marijuana and psychoactive drugs would simply be safer for the public, not to mention certain drugs have the ability to safely sooth peoples’ pain (chronic or otherwise) and have shown potential in medicinal research studies, such as treating mental health disorders like PTSD with MDMA. What undiscovered good can substances that have been reductively lumped together as “drugs” and decried as morally bad actually do for human health? Probably more than throwing someone into prison.

The GCDP is right; we need to strive toward a future in which holistic and comprehensive drug policies focus on lessening the impact and violence of illegal drug organizations while choosing the wellness of people over punishment that designates convicted drug users as second-class citizens for the rest of their lives. Let’s not have a future in which people nationwide can freely light up a joint in public while there are people serving prison time because they happened to do the exact same thing but just a year, five years or 10 years earlier. We have to strive beyond just decriminalizing weed and psychoactive drugs and decriminalize those who have been criminalized by our justice system.


Contact Deputy Opinion Editor Corinne Gaston here; or follow her on Twitter here.



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