While weed is now legal for recreational use in nine states plus D.C., it is still illegal on a federal level. Also, you must have an MMJ card in the 20 states where it is legal for medicinal use only, or else you’re breaking the law. In the other states, marijuana is completely illegal and while many states are classifying possession of small amounts of it as a misdemeanor, there are still FAR too many arrests for cannabis-related crimes in the United States.
The Failure of the ‘Drug War’
An estimated 137,000 people are in prison today on a basic drug-possession charge. Approximately 65% of them sit in local jails, and most of them have yet to actually be accused of a crime. These unfortunate individuals may have to wait months to get their day in court because of their inability to post bail.
As marijuana is completely illegal in 21 states at the time of writing, and because it is a Schedule I drug, police are still obligated to arrest people for simple possession. Between 2001 and 2010, in fact, 88% of the 8.2 million weed-related arrests were for possession. In other words, drug kingpins walk the streets while those who enjoy a relaxing smoke are the ones who get punished.
As of 2017, police were arresting around 1,700 people for a cannabis-related crime every day. However, this figure only relates to the ‘official’ number. Some states don’t report arrests to the FBI which means the actual figure is probably well above 2,000 a day.
The so-called ‘drug war’ was declared in the 1970s and in the 40+ years since, virtually nothing has been achieved. In fact, the majority of experts will tell you that the drug epidemic in the U.S. has in fact gotten worse over the years, despite the billions of dollars that the government has spent to help reduce the problem.
In 1980, for instance, 17% of Americans aged 12+ used illicit drugs; this figure was 18% in 2015! Also back in 1980, there were 200 drug possession arrests per 100,000 Americans. That number has since skyrocketed to over 425 in 2010, and sits just below 400 as of today. Basically, police have made twice as many arrests, but more people are using illegal drugs than ever before!
The terms ‘costly’ and ‘futile’ have been used to describe the Drug War, and both are accurate. The ACLU has claimed that every weed arrest costs the American taxpayer $750, and with well over 700,000 arrests a year, states have spent more than $500 million per annum just to arrest people for cannabis possession. To put things in perspective, there were over 663,000 cannabis arrests nationwide in 2011. That figure was more than the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined in that year!
As well as costing a fortune in state’s cash, arresting and booking suspects wastes valuable police time. And of course there is the small matter of court time – not to mention eating into the little time that is available to public defenders. It would mean something if there were tangible benefits, but there are none. In 2012, a Human Rights Watch report tracked 30,000 people in New York City who had been arrested for marijuana possession but had no previous convictions. Ultimately, 90% had no future felony convictions and only 3.1% committed a subsequent violent crime. Indeed, you could even argue that the 10% who committed a felony after their conviction only went down this dark path because the arrest and conviction ruined their lives.
The simple fact is that at least 30 million Americans use marijuana, and this figure is only set to rise with recent legalization in California and other U.S. states. Hopefully, the draconian laws relating to cannabis are finally realized for what they are: pointless and counter-productive.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the war on drugs has been an epic and costly failure in just about every state. Since the 1980s, the focus has been on low-level drug offenses in a bid to create a “pretty looking” set of statistics, while doing nothing for the people the police are supposed to ‘serve and protect’. This tactic of ‘broken windows’ policing remains popular in New York City: in 1991, for example, the city made less than 800 marijuana arrests. In 2010 the figure was over 59,000, which cost New York City taxpayers a grand total of $75 million.
Marijuana was legalized for recreational use in California in January 2018. However, the state (despite being one of the most liberal in the U.S.), followed the tried and failed strategy of arresting thousands of people for possession in the years leading up to the historic legislation. A 2016 study on 12 counties in California found that over 1,000 people had been arrested for cannabis-related possession. (Though to be fair, this was a significant drop from the 2010 figure of 2,139).
Severe Sentences Ruin Lives
There are many reasons why the criminalization of marijuana is a terrible idea: it prevents sick people from using viable medical treatment, it drives the use of drugs underground, it costs taxpayers a fortune, and it is preventing states from earning useful tax revenue.
Then there is the human cost; possession of small amounts of pot may be decriminalized in many states, but it hasn’t stopped unfortunate individuals from receiving extraordinarily harsh punishments.
Corey J. Ladd, for instance, had been convicted of possessing small amounts of LSD and hydrocodone, so when he was arrested for having half an ounce of weed in his car in New Orleans during a 2011 traffic stop, he may have (understandably) feared the worst. However, no one could have predicted the ridiculous 17-year prison sentence he received in 2013.
Fate Vincent Winslow was homeless when he was approached by a man looking for some marijuana in Shreveport, Louisiana. It turned out that the buyer was an undercover cop, so when Winslow returned with two $10 bags, he was arrested. Within six months, he was found guilty of selling a Schedule I dangerous substance, and received life in prison with no chance of parole. While Louisiana has strict sentencing in general (that was Winslow’s final offense under the state’s “Four Strikes” law), there are murderers released from prison that are walking the state’s streets today.
Moreover, data from 2016 showed that there were 116 people serving life imprisonment sentences in Texas on charges of marijuana possession. Seven of these individuals received the sentence, even though they had less than four grams on their person. The reason? Texas has a ‘habitual-offender’ law so if you have two prior felonies (which can also be for marijuana possession), prosecutors can seek excessively long sentences. One final statistic from Texas: In 2015, 78% of people who received a prison sentence for felony drug possession had less than a gram on their person.
What Marijuana Convictions Do to Your Status
Around 6% of cannabis cases result in a felony conviction and severe prison sentences nationwide. However, even if you are convicted of a misdemeanor or the charges are dismissed, the arrest ends up on your record. In minority neighborhoods, young men are targeted by the police so arrests are inevitable and begin to mount up. Soon, an individual could have ‘built up’ a criminal history which means they will receive heavy sentences if they are convicted of a future crime.
If you’re convicted of a felony, you could be punished with a lifetime voting ban, a ban on jury duty or a loss of access to food stamps and other public benefits. Even if you are declared innocent, your arrest record is available for up to a year in some states, meaning any employer can access it. It is sadly common for a marijuana arrest to result in loss of employment.
Also, if you’re convicted of a misdemeanor you can lose both your driver’s license and professional license. You may also lose the ability to purchase insurance and you could even be ineligible for a mortgage. You might even lose the right to receive student financial aid and/or public housing.
What If I Was Convicted in a State Where Marijuana Is Now Legal for Recreational Use?
Sadly, America is one of just 22 nations that doesn’t guarantee ‘retroactive ameliorative relief’, which is a fancy term for relaxing sentences handed down for offenses that are no longer crimes. Even Russia, a country criticized for human rights abuses, has made provisions for this form of relief.
There have been a few cases, though, where people on trial for a marijuana offense saw their conviction dropped when weed became legal in that state. In 2014, for example, a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling applied cannabis legalization retroactively. In other words, there was hope for people who were convicted of a weed crime after the herb became legal for recreational use in 2012.
In another famous case, a woman had two marijuana convictions overturned because her ‘crimes’ were no longer illegal under state law due to the passing of Amendment 64. Unfortunately, though, few people in a similar situation came forward to get their charges overturned.
Those who live in a bubble and fail to realize that there is something called ‘white privilege’ in the United States, look away now. It is a fact that whites and blacks in the United States use cannabis at similar rates. However, a 2013 report by the ACLU discovered that black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, as compared to whites. Iowa is the biggest culprit in the United States, as blacks are 8.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites. There are even counties where the ratio is a staggering 30:1! Even more galling is the fact that African-Americans are ten times more likely to go to prison for a drug-related offense.
Here are a few more disturbing racial statistics:
- In 96% of American counties with a black population of 2% or more and a population of over 30,000 people, blacks are arrested more often than whites for marijuana possession.
- Blacks and Latinos made up 86% of New York City’s weed-related arrests in 2017.
- African-Americans comprise 20% of Virginia’s population, but makeup 50% of marijuana arrests.
- Blacks are 8.2 times more likely than Caucasians to be arrested for weed possession in Pennsylvania.
- In Erie County, New York, blacks makeup just 13.5% of the population, but account for 71% of low-level cannabis arrests.
In many ways, the above data is just another obvious sign of racial bias in the criminal justice system as a whole. Perhaps it is because of individual bias amongst police, or the fact there are more cops in minority communities. Either way, it would be remiss to ignore the obvious link between socioeconomic status and crime.
What Can I Do If I Am Charged with Marijuana Possession?
Without meaning to sound flippant, don’t get caught in Louisiana! Sadly, (especially if you’re an African-American male), the country will do everything it can to ensure you end up in jail. It is also a fact that police officers behave unfavorably towards people with tattoos, piercings, body modifications and, unsurprisingly, confrontational attitudes. When you get pulled over, (try to) be polite, comply with the cop’s orders, and don’t speak unless spoken to. Also, you should NEVER consent to a search; make sure they have to get a warrant.
States such as Arizona, Wisconsin, and Nebraska have stricter weed laws than others, and you’re more likely to be charged with a felony for possession here than anywhere else in the U.S. If you can afford a defense attorney, get one! Public defenders simply don’t have the time to provide a proper defense, and they often advise clients to take a plea deal. In the modern era, juries are more reluctant to convict someone on a basic weed possession charge so in many cases, going to trial is preferable to a plea deal.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana Possession & Prison
The answer to the question “how many people are arrested and sent to jail for marijuana possession” is: TOO MANY! It seems remarkable that you can be sentenced to jail time for smoking something that grows naturally and has an array of medical benefits. However, the simple fact is that possession of a few grams of Mary Jane can result in a harsher sentence than what is handed down to rapists, murderers, and other serious offenders.
While it’s true that the number of arrests for marijuana possession, and the number of convictions, are falling, this is mainly due to individual state laws. As long as marijuana remains federally illegal, the police will continue to waste precious time and money to enforce a ridiculous law that is – in particular – extremely biased against African-American men. It is time for America to wake up and realize that marijuana is not a problem, it is a solution.