While weed is now legal for recreational use in 11 states plus D.C., it is still illegal on a federal level. Also, you must have an MMJ card in the 22 states where it is legal for medicinal use only. Otherwise, you’re breaking the law. In other states, marijuana is wholly illegal. Many states now classify possession of small amounts as a misdemeanor. However, there are still far too many arrests for cannabis-related crimes in the United States.
The Failure of the ‘Drug War’
Tens of thousands of people are in prison today on a basic drug-possession charge. A significant proportion of them sit in local jails, waiting for the police to issue an indictment. These unfortunate individuals may have to wait for months to go to court because of their inability to post bail.
Remember, marijuana is entirely illegal in 17 states at the time of writing, and it is a Schedule I drug. As a result, police are still obligated to arrest people for simple possession.
Between 2001 and 2010, 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.
There were over 663,000 cannabis arrests in America in 2018. 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. Despite more states legalizing marijuana, the number of arrests is increasing!
Decades of Misery & Futility
The so-called ‘drug war’ was declared in the 1970s. It has achieved nothing positive in almost half a century since. The majority of experts will tell you that the drug epidemic in the U.S. has gotten worse over the years. This is 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.
The terms ‘costly’ and ‘futile’ aptly describe the Drug War. The ACLU has claimed that every weed arrest costs the American taxpayer $750. With close to 700,000 arrests a year, states spend more than $500 million per annum to arrest people for cannabis possession. Marijuana possession arrests are close to the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined in a year!
Police Time & Resources
As well as costing a fortune in the state’s cash, arresting and booking suspects wastes valuable police time. And of course, there is the small matter of court time. Public defenders have little time to prepare for cases as it is. 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. None of them had 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 12% of adult Americans use marijuana. Recent legalization in specific states will only increase that number. Hopefully, the draconian laws relating to cannabis are finally understood for what they are: Pointless and counter-productive.
What Is the Purpose of the Drug War?
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the war on drugs has been an epic and costly failure. Since the 1980s, the focus is on low-level drug offenses in a bid to create a “pretty-looking” set of statistics. It does 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 total of $75 million. At least there is hope on the horizon in the Big Apple. In 2018, the NYPD announced that it would slash its arrests for publicly smoking cannabis by half. There are also plans to expunge the records of people convicted of a low-level marijuana offense in New York.
California legalized marijuana for recreational use in January 2018. However, the state 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 were arrested for cannabis-related possession. In fairness, 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 an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. It drives the use of narcotics underground, it costs taxpayers a fortune, and it prevents states from earning useful tax revenue.
Then there is the human cost. Many states decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. However, it hasn’t stopped unfortunate individuals from receiving extraordinarily harsh punishments.
Corey J. Ladd, for instance, was previously convicted of possessing small amounts of LSD and hydrocodone. He was arrested for having half an ounce of weed in his car in New Orleans during a 2011 traffic stop. At this point, he 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. A man approached him looking for some marijuana in Shreveport, Louisiana. It turned out that the buyer was an undercover cop. When Winslow returned with two $10 bags, the police officer arrested him. Within six months, he received life in prison with no chance of parole.
Louisiana has strict sentencing in general (that was Winslow’s final offense under the state’s “Four Strikes” law). However, there are murderers released from prison walking the state’s streets today.
There are well over 100 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.
Texas has a ‘habitual-offender’ law. If you have two prior felonies (including for marijuana possession), prosecutors can seek excessively long sentences. One final statistic from Texas: Over three-quarters of people who receive a prison sentence for felony drug possession have 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’re 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 convicted of a future crime. Don’t believe us? In the third quarter of 2019, NYPD officers arrested 262 black and Hispanic people for low-level drug charges. They arrested just 18 white individuals during the same timeframe.
If convicted of a felony, punishments vary. They could include a lifetime voting ban or a ban on jury duty.
Other penalties are 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. This means any employer can access it. It is sadly common for a marijuana arrest to result in loss of employment.
If 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 become ineligible for a mortgage. You might 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.’ This is a fancy term for relaxing sentences given 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. It gave hope to people convicted of a marijuana crime after the herb became legal for recreational use in 2012.
In another famous case, a woman had two marijuana convictions overturned. This was because her ‘crimes’ were no longer illegal under state law due to the passing of Amendment 64. A handful of states now make provisions for expunging cannabis convictions.
In New York, for example, Governor Cuomo signed a significant bill into law in August 2019. It removed criminal penalties for possession of under two ounces of cannabis. It resulted in over 150,000 people having previous weed-related convictions sealed. While convictions are now sealed in the system, you must petition the court where it happened to get the records destroyed. Other states following suit include Illinois and California.
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 revealed a disturbing finding. It discovered that black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession 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 disturbing 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 make up almost 90% of New York City’s weed-related arrests.
- African-Americans comprise 20% of Virginia’s population but make up 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, African-Americans make up just 13.5% of the population but account for 71% of low-level cannabis arrests.
In many ways, the above data is just another visible 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 is willfully ignorant to ignore the apparent 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), many states do everything they can to ensure you go to jail. It is also a fact that police officers behave unfavorably towards people with tattoos, piercings, body modifications, and confrontational attitudes.
When you get pulled over, politely 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. You’re more likely to receive a felony charge 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. As a result, 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. 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 go to jail for smoking something that grows naturally. However, possession of a few grams of Mary Jane can result in a harsh sentence. In some states in specific circumstances, it is a bigger ‘crime’ than being a rapist or murderer!
The number of arrests and convictions for marijuana possession is indeed falling. However, 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. They do this 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 potentially a solution.