NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S.
IV. Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders Often Serve Longer Sentences Than Murderers or Rapists.
Elected officials at both the state and federal level often engage in what the National Criminal Justice Commission calls "bait and switch." Employers of this technique exploit the public's natural fear of violent crime and propose harsh, sometimes mandatory anti-drug legislation in response. Unfortunately, this legislation seldom targets violent criminals or large drug traffickers. Rather, it often inflicts a devastating impact on minor, non-violent drug offenders.
For example, harsh federal and state sentences often apply to all marijuana distribution and "possession with the intent to distribute" offenses, regardless of whether any violence was associated with the event or the defendant is a significant marijuana trafficker. Even minor offenses may qualify for harsh mandatory sentences. This is a needlessly destructive policy that is both a misuse of the criminal process and a waste of criminal justice resources. If combating violent crime is the reason for imposing harsh and unyielding mandatory sentences, then such legislation should solely target violent offenders. There is no justification for treating non-violent marijuana offenses differently, yet many laws continue to do so.
For instance, many adult marijuana smokers share marijuana on a nonprofit basis with friends. Under many state laws, this activity could subject them to lengthy prison sentences.
Similarly, many seriously ill people -- including AIDS and cancer patients -- use marijuana to relieve their pain and suffering. Often their illness requires that a primary caregiver obtain marijuana for them. Many of these caregiverscould serve a mandatory prison sentence if convicted under existingmarijuana laws. Also at great risk are the proprietors of cannabis buyers' clubs (CBCs) who supply marijuana to seriously ill patients who possess a doctor's recommendation. Despite operating with the tacit acceptance of local law enforcement, all clubs operate in violation of federal law and most are in violation of state law. Owners of these clubs, who sometimes grow medical marijuana on site, often face federal mandatory minimum sentences for their activities. For example, federal agents confiscated over 300 marijuana plants at a California CBC called Flower Therapy on April 24, 1997. 36 Even though the club operated in accordance with state law and the plants confiscated were grown for medicinal purposes only, the owners of the club face a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison if they are found guilty of cultivation. This mandatory sentence is equal to the average prison time served by defendants convicted of violent crimes like manslaughter and is over one-year longer than the average federal sentence served for assault. 37 Likewise, individual patients preferring to avoid the black market altogether and grow a few marijuana plants in their homes are also subject to stiff state and/or federal penalties.
Marijuana possession and cultivation offenses have absolutely nothing to do with violence, yet people convicted of these offenses regularly serve longer sentences than those convicted of violent offenses, including rape and murder. State and national leaders need to reconsider our country's priorities and attach more importance to combating violent crime rather than targeting marijuana smokers.
Most Americans do not want to spend public funds incarcerating nonviolent marijuana offenders, at a cost of $23,000 per year. 38 NORML insists that our elected officials recognize that marijuana smokers are not part of the crime problem and it is wasteful, deleterious, and inhumane for our criminal statutes to treat them as if they were.