Pot Prisoners

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By Joe Chivers

Every day, it seems that more and more people come around to the idea of legalizing, or at least, decriminalizing, pot. It is paramount that we understand that all is not rosy for those who consume the drug, however. Recently, politicians from both sides of the aisle have pointed out the ridiculousness of imprisoning people for possession of marijuana. John Boehner stated “we have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.” Meanwhile, Senator Brian Schatz tweeted on the subject, saying simply “More than 2 million in jail, mostly black and brown, many for holding a small amount of marijuana.” He went on to describe the drug war as a “fiscal and moral failure.” If it simply ended there, with people still being imprisoned in states where the outdated law is still on the statutes, it would be bad enough. However, it gets worse. There are still people being arrested for possession in legalized states. There are still a staggering number of people in federal prisons on pot charges. And, of course, there are still people being arrested in states where recreational use is illegal.

Colorado, for many, is the state most emblematic of marijuana legalization. Despite Washington legalizing it first (by four days), Colorado was faster in building their legal weed business, and stole the limelight. Despite that, people are still being arrested in Colorado simply for having the temerity to possess a perfectly legal substance. The so-called “black market” weed situation led to 5771 people being arrested for marijuana in 2014, two years after recreational use was legalized. Meanwhile, in New York City, where pot has been decriminalized, arrests for possession increased from 2015 to 2016 by 9 percent, with 18,136 people being arrested. These busts are not fair. That there are still people being arrested, imprisoned, and having their lives devastated for a drug that large parts of the country have legalized is appalling. Devastation is not, if you are wondering, hyperbole. This unjust stain on your record can affect almost every important aspect of your life. It can make it extremely hard to find employment, banks can deny applications for loans, landlords can refuse to rent to you, and it could cost you custody of your children, if you have any. All for possessing pot.

It is important here that we do not just focus on individual states. Cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, and there are still many people locked away in federal prisons on charges relating to it. There are 97,678 people currently incarcerated in federal prisons for drug violations. Of these, 12.4 percent, or 11,533 people, are imprisoned for federal crimes relating to marijuana. The average sentence for these crimes is 88 months, or just over seven years. One of these prisoners is 48-year-old Aaron Sandusky, a man from Southern California, who, in 2013 was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for running a state-legal medical marijuana company. He was arrested as part of a crackdown overseen by the Obama administration, which saw owners of marijuana businesses arrested and tried in federal courts, where state laws do not apply. Thus, despite not breaking a single Californian law, Sandusky has been languishing in prison for six years. Most recently, he has been held at ADX Florence, a federal prison in Colorado, often likened to Alcatraz due to its high security and remote location. Here, he has been housed alongside the Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Unabomber, a planner of the 9/11 attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, and numerous gang kingpins. All of this, for running a perfectly legal business.

Sandusky’s case is far from the only one. Corvain Cooper, another California man, was found guilty of money laundering, tax evasion, and conspiracy to distribute marijuana in 2013. Over 50 other people were arrested in connection to the crimes, yet Cooper is the only person to have received a life sentence. It is important to state that Cooper is not a violent criminal. There are no records of him ever committing a violent crime. He did, however, have two previous drug convictions, which led to federal prosecutors in North Carolina applying the Three Strikes law. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. While Cooper was previously imprisoned in a Californian federal prison, USP Atwater, where his family could visit him, he has since been moved further afield to a federal prison in Louisiana. His family cannot afford the trip to visit him, and it is possible that his mother, Barbara Tillis, will never see him again.

We’ll move onto our final point. There is a definite racial bias in marijuana arrests. Statistics suggest that white and black people use marijuana at a very, very close rate. Despite this, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession, according to the ACLU. The marijuana industries are effectively segregated, with owners of legal businesses more often white. This in turn leads to white people experiencing the brutal hand of punitive “justice” far less often than black people. This is simply one more head upon the hydra of racially-driven policing in the United States.

How then, are these issues to be solved? We have presented three issues, and will attempt to provide three solutions. To attempt to abolish the black market for good, marijuana prices could be lowered with strategic tax relief on the parts of various state governments. To right the wrongs that land harmless individuals in federal penitentiaries, we need a solution that will be far harder to come by: federal decriminalization of marijuana. There have been some movements in this direction recently, but a solution still looks to be some distance off. Finally, the problem of racially-biased arrests. Solving this is not within the purview of any one individual or even government. However, there are some solutions that could ameliorate this: one would be an effort put into community policing, rather than drafting in those from outside the communities they police, and second, more of an effort put into avoiding wrongful arrests. These would not solve the issue of racism in America, but one would hope they’d help.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.