Legal in some states, life imprisonment in others
By Scott Sumner
Defenders of the War on Drug Using Americans often tell me that people almost never go to jail for mere possession, rather it is the evil “dealers” who are imprisoned. (I must admit that I don’t see why one side of a voluntary transaction is more evil than the other.)
Tyler Cowen linked to this Wonkblog post:
Police arrest more people for marijuana use than for all violent crimes — combined
On any given day in the United States, at least 137,000 people sit behind bars on simple drug-possession charges, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
Nearly two-thirds of them are in local jails. The report says that most of these jailed inmates have not been convicted of any crime: They’re sitting in a cell, awaiting a day in court, an appearance that may be months or even years off, because they can’t afford to post bail.
And as in so many areas of our society, there are racial disparities:
The report finds that the laws are enforced unequally, too. Over their lifetimes, black and white Americans use illicit drugs at similar rates, according to federal data. But black adults were more than 2½ times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.
Many of the prison sentences seem ridiculous:
The report reinforces its point by noting the lengthy sentences handed down in some states for possession of small amounts of drugs.
For example, it sketches the history of Corey J. Ladd, who was arrested for possessing half an ounce of marijuana during a 2011 traffic stop in New Orleans. Because he had convictions for two prior offenses involving the possession of small amounts of hydrocodone and LSD, he was sentenced in 2013 to 17 years in prison as a “habitual offender.” He is currently appealing the sentence to Louisiana’s Supreme Court.
And it gets even worse:
But Ladd’s treatment is far from the harshest drug-possession sentence uncovered by ACLU and Human Rights Watch researchers, who conducted analyses of arrest and incarceration data from Florida, New York and Texas.
In Texas, for instance, 116 people are currently serving life sentences on charges of simple drug possession. Seven of those people earned their sentences for possessing quantities of drugs weighing between 1 gram and 4 grams, or less than a typical sugar packet. That’s because Texas also has a habitual-offender law, allowing prosecutors to seek longer-than-normal sentences for people who have two prior felonies.
“In 2015, more than 78 percent of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas possessed under a gram,” the report found.
Both Trump and Clinton support the war on drugs, which is why neither will get my vote. And that’s probably why it doesn’t come up in the debate. But the voters have other ideas, as both selling pot and possessing pot is now legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and will likely be legalized soon in many other states, including California. Canada is also expected to follow suit. Meanwhile taxpayer money is spent destroying lives in places like Texas, for possessing a single gram of illegal drugs.
And yet despite these horrific statistics, the War on Drugs gets less attention in the media than the question of which bathrooms various genders should be using.
PS. This source suggests that 12.4% of federal drug prisoners are in for marijuana violations, and 44.3% of those had minimal criminal histories (no previous time in prison.) About 85% were not carrying a firearm.
PPS. I will be a a panel at Boston University on Saturday, discussing marijuana legalization. My state is voting on the issue on Tuesday–the only ballot question where a good outcome is even feasible. The info is below.