Can You Get Life In Prison for Weed?

Recreational marijuana use is now legal in 11 states. It is legal for medicinal use in 33 states. In many of these areas, marijuana use is less frowned upon than single use plastics.

Prior to this trend toward legalization, marijuana has been illegal in the United States for the better part of a century. The Federal Government still designates cannabis as a schedule 1 drug. So while a state may have legalized recreational or medicinal marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law.

Criminalization, of course, implies consequences in the form of arrests, fines, and imprisonment. In practice, these implied consequences have been disproportionately applied to minorities.

Sentencing Statistics Show Racial Bias

In 2013, the ACLU cited an arrest rate for African-Americans to Caucasians of 3.73 to 1. Use in both white and non-white populations is nearly equal. This disparity is difficult to explain as anything other than a product of systemic racial bias.

Compounding the matter are third strike laws, part of the legal code of 28 states. Perpetrators committing a third offense face more severe penalties than a single offense would warrant.

For marijuana offenders, this might mean life in prison.

Ferrell Scott was convicted for marijuana trafficking in 2007. This was his third strike, and he chose not to plead guilty. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole, where he remains.

In 2014, Lee Carroll Booker was arrested in Alabama for a small marijuana grow in the backyard of his son’s home. Despite being 75 years old, disabled, and having only grown the plants for personal use. Due to robberies committed 20 years earlier, the pot infraction triggered a mandatory life sentence.

Cannabis in America: From Textile, to Medicine, to Political Scapegoat

It is instructive to look at the history of marijuana in America to understand its present-day status.

The United States has had a fraught relationship with marijuana since colonial times. Hemp, a cannabis varietal, was a cash crop for the colonial and pre-Civil War farms. Farmers received the equivalent of subsidies for their harvest, in the same way that corn is currently subsidized for ethanol. Farmers faced fines for not growing hemp.

By the 1850s, cotton had replaced hemp as a textile of choice for most uses. Before the turn of the 20th century, cannabis started to appear as an ingredient in medicinal products. There seemed to be no concern over potential dangers.

That would change when strife and revolution broke out in Mexico during the early 1900s. Refugees crossing the border brought  the practice of smoking marijuana flowers.

These were not times of great racial tolerance in America. The linking of marijuana use with non-white ethnicities stirred suspicion. This suspicion reached a peak in the years following prohibition.

An alliance led by prohibitionist Harry Anslinger pushed for passage of the Marijuana Stamp Tax Act. This effectively outlawed marijuana. Two men, Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell, were arrested on the same day of the law’s passage.

The War on Drugs, Political Cover For Nixon’s Power Grab

It was not until 1971, however, that marijuana was assigned schedule 1 status.  In a speech to Congress, in June of 1971, Nixon laid out his plans for a war on drugs. He state that “”If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us.”

This was not an altruistic attempt to benefit the public health. Nixon saw drug users in the same light as political opponents. He intended to use the drug war as a proxy to disrupt their homes and communities.

John Ehrlichman, an aide to President Nixon, acknowledged as much. His quote from a 2016 interview bears reading in full.

Ehrlichman explained his plan to associate marijuana and heroin with hippies and African-Americans. He then stated that by “criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Law enforcement would arrest community leaders, invade houses, and use the nightly news to portray these individuals as dangerous criminals.

It has long been suggested that the police, FBI, and DEA have abused their power in the war on drugs. Ehrlichman’s quote makes it clear that these federal agencies were given permission by the president’s own hand to do so.

In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan pushed legislation that introduced mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums are sentences for specific crimes that override a judge’s consideration for circumstance. These included:

  • Five year minimum for 100 kilograms of marijuana
  • 10 year minimum for 1000 kilograms of marijuana

In addition to jail, these marijuana offenses can incur fines up to $1,000,000 as well.

The Drug War: A Failed Conflict

Given Ehrlichman’s quote, and Reagan’s Anti-Drug-Abuse Act, the lines are easy to connect to the life convictions some users face. Federal authorities targeted entire communities, throwing lives into chaos.

The war on drugs failed to stem the rate of drug use in America. It cost billions of dollars. As a tool for disrupting President Nixon’s political opponents, it was an unfortunate success.

Of course, times are changing. 11 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Research into therapeutic uses has resumed. Most white-collar working spaces will have a few high-functioning users.

Marijuana use is not benign, of course. No drug, medicinal or otherwise, is without risk. Data from emergency medical centers link marijuana to anxiety, schizophrenia, and psychotic breaks. These risks are extreme cases. Treatment is a better option for these, rather than arrest and prosecution.

Legalization Succeeds, Justice Falls Behind

These developments represent progress towards a more humane drug policy. They do not bring any comfort to men like Brooker, Ferrell. Nor do they bring justice any of the other individuals facing life in prison for similar crimes. These people have to watch from behind bars as marijuana entrepreneurs make fortunes. As pot-businesses earn the same respect as any successful business-person, their lives remain ruined.

And it is worth noting that federal agencies can still enforce laws at will. Under the present administration, agencies prosecute individuals and businesses on pot-related charges. This occurs even in the 11 states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

The United States has made progress towards a more fair and equitable policy towards marijuana. But Brooker, Ferrell and others sentenced to life without parole, would agree that the work is not yet done.


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