Prison for Pot: No Laughing Matter

sentencing guidelinesJust saw a satirical piece on the internet, designed to look like an actual news story, claiming Colorado was going to release all their prisoners incarcerated on marijuana related charges. It looked real enough to have to be debunked by legitimate sources. And I thought, for someone sitting in prison for weed, that’s not funny at all.

Being an attorney based in a large metropolitan area like Pittsburgh, I do regularly see the injustices that occur in the War on Drugs. I also spend much time traveling western Pennsylvania, representing clients in less urban environments.  Very often, drug offenses become magnified in the minds of citizens in these outlying districts. It’s not uncommon to read of a drug bust in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but it’s pretty shocking when it’s a small community far from the big city.

Judges are often less tolerant in those cases, which often results in harsher sentences. Bear in mind, these sentences are perfectly legal. There is just a tendency to forbear less in those communities than in a big city, where these cases have become ‘run of the mill’ stories in the news. A Prosecutor in a big city is more likely to work with a defense attorney in reducing charges, penalties, etc., if for no other reason than expediency. The courts are so jammed with drug cases, the system often has no choice but to acknowledge the true state of the Drug War: We can’t afford it.

As an advocate for the legalization of marijuana, it’s troubling to find the vast majority of those, “Drug Arrests”, involve a drug that’s so harmless, it’s actually legal in 5 states AND the United States Capitol, Washington, DC.

Look, this has become a problem on epidemic proportions.

The damage done to individuals, and worse still, entire families, because of unnecessary prosecution of otherwise law abiding, hard working, tax paying citizens, is criminal in itself.

In fact, Congress, in one of it’s more rational moments, has begun to look at seizure and forfeiture laws, enacted as a tool for law enforcement in the War on Drugs, as being just that; A legal criminal enterprise offering profit incentives to local police to arrest otherwise harmless citizens, in too many instances with no court verdict needed to keep item seized. Cars, boats, homes are seized because someone was caught growing some pot. That’s it. No violence, no robbery, just some pot.

According to United Nations estimates, global consumption of opiates, cocaine and marijuana increased by 35 percent, 27 percent and 9 percent, respectively, between 1998 and 2008.

People want to get high, on all sorts of drugs, both naturally occurring and man-made. There’s no getting around it. It’s bad enough that certain drugs already create hazards in one’s life without the community making it impossible to ever recover from getting caught.

2014-03-06-OffendersDrugTypemostof2013For those sitting in prison over marijuana offenses, the situation has become beyond frustrating, as they watch states, one after another, legalizing the plant they are in prison for growing, selling, and even just possessing. For attorneys, prosecutors, Judges and police, marijuana charges are more trouble than they are worth, yet we still see people being sentenced to jail, in many cases because the laws on the books have failed to keep up with the times.


2014-03-06-Screenshot20140306at3.09.08PMBetween October 2012 and September 2013, 27.6 percent of drug offenders were locked up for crimes related to marijuana, followed by powder cocaine (22.5 percent), methamphetamine (22.5 percent), crack cocaine (11.5 percent), heroin (8.8 percent) and other (7.2 percent), according to the Sentencing Commission.2014-03-06-Screenshot

As the number of people convicted of drug offenses has gone up, the federal prison population has increased — almost 790 percent since 1980, when there were only about 25,000 inmates, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report. Today, there are more than 215,000 inmates in federal prison, the BOP reports.

If it’s just about the money raised from fines, the system is even more flawed, as the cost of incarcerating individuals on drug charges far exceeds the revenue generated from fines. Especially when a large portion of those expected ‘revenue fines’ are dependent upon those who can least afford it– the poor and minorities.

It’s time to take a realistic approach in the failed War On Drugs. It’s a waste of money, time, law enforcement resources, and lives, and that’s no laughing matter.

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