Weed It and Weep
One of America's central targets in its failed drug war has been marijuana. Some Americans might not realize that mere possession of a small bag of marijuana can result in imprisonment, since our marijuana laws are enforced mainly according to the color of our skin, the size of our bank account, or the zip code where we reside. However, under our "imprison-first, think later" policies, more than 734,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges in 2002 , and more than 5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses in the past decade; nearly 90% of which were for simple possession for personal use, not sale.
We lock up more people for marijuana than the individual prison populations of 8 of the 10 European Union nations. In North Carolina and South Dakota, marijuana arrests constituted 74% of all drug arrests. In 7 out of 10 states marijuana arrests make up over half of all drug arrests and in almost 3 out of 10 states marijuana arrests make up almost 60 percent of all drug arrests.
In New York City, arrests for marijuana possession and use have risen from less than 2,000 in 1992 to more than 52,000 in 2000. Minor marijuana offenses now comprise 15% of all arrests in the city of New York.
In the Bronx, for instance, dozens of people are arrested and jailed every month for possession of marijuana, even if only 1 bag or a half-inch cigarette. Every year, hundreds of people are handcuffed, thrown in a police van, taken to Central Booking, placed in a jail cell, held for 24, 36, maybe 48 hours, and brought before a judge, where they usually plead guilty to a violation and a fine, or maybe to community service, or maybe, if it's their fourth time arrested for marijuana in the past year, they plead guilty to a misdemeanor and receive a lifelong criminal record, or perhaps if they have a recent criminal record they will be kept in jail for a week, maybe two, maybe more, all for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Beyond arrest and jail, marijuana arrests and convictions can lead to deportation, loss of housing, and loss of employment.
I represented hundreds of people in the Bronx for marijuana possession, from teenage high school kids to the young professionals, from 60-year-old grandparents to serious drug addicts, all mostly poor African-Americans or Latinos. As we discussed plea options, I wondered if any of the many middle-income or wealthy white people in New York who run around on weekends carrying marijuana (hand-delivered to their apartment from discrete sources), not to mention who snort cocaine in restaurant bathrooms, or use heroin and ecstasy in the backs of clubs, if any of them worry about being arrested, detained, held in court, getting criminal records, and losing their jobs? When I see community service crews sweeping the streets or picking up garbage in a park, I never see models and bankers and Columbia University students, even though many of them smoke marijuana on a regular basis.
It is unacceptable that there are lawyers in Manhattan who get high every night, and NYU and Columbia students who smoke marijuana on campus with impunity, yet on any given day or night, you can walk back to the pens in Criminal Court and pick out a handful of black and Latino men and women, behind bars, waiting for hours for a lawyer to represent them for possessing a single bag of marijuana.
If the DEA raided liberal arts campuses in the Northeast and made hundreds of easy arrests for marijuana possession, dragging students from their dorms at Amherst and Williams, handcuffing Vassar and Wesleyan students at a party, taking Yale and Harvard students from the steps of the library and putting them into a police van, and threw them all into jail overnight, forcing them to call their parents and hire lawyers, would those schools, and those students' parents, and our society, turn the other cheek? Would we applaud such an incident? Would we consider the police action reasonable in light of the offense, a worthwhile use of our tax money?
Beyond its biased enforcement, our government's marijuana policies are deeply hypocritical. Why do we imprison people for possession of marijuana but happily sell people alcohol and cigarettes? It seems cigarettes are far more addictive than marijuana, and responsible for many more deaths every year. Alcohol is likewise dangerously addictive, can dramatically alter people's mood and perceptions, and seems more apt to make people behave violently or lead them into poor, often life-threatening decisions (driving drunk, having unprotected sex, etc.). And yet lawmakers and police officers and teachers get drunk and chain smoke on weekends while poor people go to jail for possessing marijuana.
Or take Angel Raich. She suffers from scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea and other ailments. According to her doctor, the only way for her to stay alive, ease her pain, and stimulate her nonexistent appetite is to use marijuana on a daily basis (conventional drugs proved ineffectual).
The federal government scoffs at the medical use of marijuana, and has arrested and prosecuted people who grow and possess it for such purposes. Two years ago, to avoid being arrested, Ms. Raich preemptively sued the government. Her case wound its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled against her, holding that medical marijuana users and their suppliers could be prosecuted for breaching federal drug laws even if the states in which they resided (such as California) had deemed medical marijuana legal.
Ms. Raich went back before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that marijuana should be allowed if it is the only viable option to keep a patient alive. She lost again, and now the federal government can prosecute her.
This is yet another example of our government's misguided criminalization of marijuana, investing precious time, money, and resources going after people using marijuana to numb their physical discomfort.
I am inviting any readers to argue the Government's position. Tell me why marijuana should be illegal? Why should we arrest and jail people for it? Why should people lose jobs over it, get criminal records for it, be made to clean subways and parks for having possessed it? What is the critical distinction between marijuana and cigarettes or alcohol, other than that the government outlaws one and permits the others? To the extent that the illicit sale of marijuana is accompanied by danger and violence, why not legalize it (so it can be sold under safe, regulated conditions like alcohol and tobacco)?
Our government should use the millions it spends on filling our local jails with people who smoke marijuana and reinvest it in public school education, job skill training programs, and fighting real crime.