Once upon a time, getting busted by the police with a bit of pot in your pocket in Anywhere, USA, was going to set off a chain reaction that, to the unknowing passerby, the unaware, might appear as though somebody was murdered. Officers would have the pothead perp face down on the sidewalk, cuffed up tight, eventually hauling his ass down to the local precinct where the real reaming would begin. That’s where the offender would inevitably be charged for their felonious actions, booked into jail, and stuck inside a cell until going before a judge to answer for their green indiscretions. From there, if convicted — and they surely would be — the offender might find themself carted off to state or federal prison to live out the next several years with the real ruffians of uncivil society. Life as that poor bastard had come to know it was officially over.
Fast forward a few decades, and times have changed. At least to some degree. More than half the United States has some sort of pot law on the books that either allows Americans to consume cannabis for medicinal purposes or gives that right to adults 21 and over. The real upside is that fewer people are getting slammed face down on the pavement and carted off to the pokey for having an appreciation for the herb. All is right in the world. Well, not so fast, maverick!
Prohibition is still alive and well in the so-called Land of the Free. Although there is a political tug of war in Congress with respect to legalizing the leaf at the national level, the federal government still hasn’t budged on bud. Cross Uncle Sam by messing with cannabis — a product that is enjoyed legally by millions of people all over the country — and it could spell serious trouble. Meanwhile, many states are still sticking it to the average stoner, and some of them big time. They are handing down criminal charges for petty possession, drug classes, hefty fines, and even jail time.
It is a little-known fact that tens of thousands of people are still sitting behind bars because of cannabis-related offenses. Jonathan Wall, currently incarcerated at the Chesapeake Detention Facility, a super-maximum jail in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of them. The 27-year-old aspiring cannabis entrepreneur is presently facing 15-years to life for conspiring to traffic pot from California to Maryland. His attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, argues that Uncle Sam’s aggressive pursuit of this young man is nothing short of lunacy. “Our government is locking people in cages for pot while it’s legal to go down to the local strip mall, buy an assault rifle and a fifth of whiskey,” he told High Times. Flores-Williams went on to say: “Corporations around the country are generating billions from the same activity for which my client is facing life in prison.”
Some of the most vocal naysayers of the nug — a title that requires little more than a disconnect from progress and reality — are of the opinion that, despite the herb’s legality in parts of the country, people who are incarcerated for pot must be the dregs of the doob, the scoundrels of a stoned nation: dealers, drug traffickers and violent, weapon-wielding maniacs. Why should they care if any of these people rot in prison? “I don’t want a bunch of saggy-pants thugs in the streets selling weed or anything else to my kids,” Joseph, a 47-year-old factory worker from Lafayette, Indiana, told us. “There are laws in this country for a reason. Some liberal states might not care about addiction and crime, but some of us still do. This country has enough problems.”
There is an apparent communication breakdown between discussing the compassionate release of pot offenders and some slick moves to unleash savage beasts back into productive society. Contrary to what people like Joseph might think, turning loose gun-toting felons who eat young children for breakfast isn’t what’s happening, nor is it the intention of the cannabis movement.
Mariah Daly, a legal fellow at the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), an organization vying for the release of pot offenders nationwide, told High Times that their constituents — the incarcerated men and women they step in to help see the light of day once again — must meet a specific set of criterion to receive the LPP’s assistance. Firstly, the primary offense must be cannabis related. No other illicit substances can be involved in the underlying violation. Next, and perhaps most importantly, the incarcerated individual must be a non-violent offender and not have been convicted of any sex crimes. Nobody is trying to ensure that violent criminals are set free to run amok.
Yes, the people incarcerated for cannabis indeed broke the law. It is important to consider, however, that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
“Many of our constituents were sentenced to life, de facto life, or 20+ years for their cannabis offense,” Daly said. “No other drugs were involved in the underlying offenses and these men have zero history of violence/sex offenses over the course of their lifetime. Even if you disagree regarding whether cannabis offenders should be incarcerated at all (like say, in convictions “more serious than simple possession”), cannabis offenders who have received excessive sentences should be released.”
The majority of the average, run-of-the-mill cannabis advocates we spoke to about it, some of which are in just as much jeopardy of similar legal consequences, wholeheartedly agree. They contend that society should care just as much about releasing non-violent pot offenders as it does crushing statues of the confederates and uncovering backasswards governmental deceptions like the War on Drugs. At the very least, they should show more interest in freeing discarded offenders than Keeping up with the Kardashians and the release of the McRib. Without correcting the errors of the past, some argue, the country doesn’t stand a chance of experiencing real growth. “Freeing cannabis prisoners is a correction long overdue,” one advocate said.
But why should anyone really care if a bunch of pot prisoners ever get out? Aside from it being a crime in and of itself to simply lock people up for going against the grain of laws that we now know were created out of reefer madness, all the while doing it in a manner that ensured no vile acts were committed against their fellow man, we should — every single one of us — appreciate the volatility of freedom. All it takes is one bad day, and a similar fate could be bestowed upon us.
“Everyone should care about restorative justice in this area because cannabis should never have been illegal in the first place, and because it could easily be anyone in the wrong circumstances,” Morgan Fox, political director of the national cannabis advocacy group NORML told High Times.
“Given the lifelong negative effects and collateral consequences of simply having a criminal record, let alone spending time behind bars, it makes no sense to continue to punish people for federal violations for behavior that is no longer illegal,” he added. “Not only do these direct and collateral effects hinder people from becoming productive, independent members of society and harm their families and communities, but the costs associated with punishing them are an unnecessary drain on the taxpayer.”
The toll of this drain is significant.
According to the latest Federal Register’s Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration (COIF), the average annual COIF for a federal inmate in a federal facility in Fiscal Year 2020 was $39,158 ($120.59 per day). The average annual COIF for a federal inmate in a Residential Reentry Center for FY 2020 was $35,663 ($97.44 per day). Considering roughly 40,000 people are still in cages for non-violent pot offenses, the price tag for keeping them is sheer lunacy.
It is worth noting that arrests for federal cannabis crimes have gone down since 2019. There were fewer than 1,000 people slapped with federal pot charges in 2021. Still, hundreds of thousands are arrested for weed every year, most of which (89%) are for simple possession.
Now, state and federal prisons are not full of harmless pot users who have been stripped from their families forever over a measly joint. That much is true. Still, thousands of these low-end offenders continue to be put through the wringers of the criminal justice system every year, taking it on the chin royally even when the likelihood of spending a day in prison is slim to none.
Most first-time pot offenders are tossed into the system and forced to swallow their fair share of probationary requirements — they can’t smoke weed, can’t be around people who do, can’t leave the state, must attend drug and alcohol classes, pay elaborate fines and court costs, submit to random drug testing, etc. Failure to comply with any of these probationary terms, and, well, there’s a jail cell waiting for them. The punishment for pot possession only gets stiffer with subsequent offenses. In some cases, three-strike rules have put non-violent pot offenders like Missouri’s Jeff Mizanskey in prison for life. In fact, Mizanskey, who had his life sentence commuted in late 2015 by then-Governor Jay Nixon after serving more than two decades behind bars for pot possession, would still be a resident of the Jefferson City Correctional Center today if not for the tireless efforts of lawmakers and cannabis advocacy groups fighting for his release.
A heck of a lot of people like Mr. Mizanskey remain in prison for a plant that’s poised to become one of the most prominent economy boosters this country has witnessed since booze. Some of the latest predictions show the national pot market will be worth nearly $40 billion once Uncle Sam admits to losing the drug war and lets the herb go legal. It means millions of new jobs and a substantial economic boost for everyone from contractors to independent businesses.
Furthermore, most reasonable citizens would agree that the US government’s attitude and behavior toward cannabis offenders is wrong. And according to Stephen Post, campaign strategist for the LPP, the issue hits close to home for many American families. “Given that over a third of United States residents have experienced the trauma of having an immediate family member who has been to jail or prison, I think more people already care about this issue than is realized,” he told us.
For those who don’t give two flying squirts about pot offenders, perhaps it is time to consider the moral argument.
“Communities in the United States need to care about the release of those still imprisoned for cannabis if we are ever going to achieve our nation’s democratic ideal that ‘all men are created equal,'” Post added. “The enforcement of cannabis criminalization is one of this nation’s biggest hypocrisies as tens of thousands remain behind bars, while others are privileged to generate millions of dollars.”
Although progress on Capitol Hill has been slow concerning changing the nation’s weed laws, there is a push, one with bipartisan support, to not only legalize the green at the national level but in a way that also allows for the release of those incarcerated for a variety of cannabis offenses. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was just approved by the US House of Representatives and now advances to the Senate for consideration, would allow more states to open cannabis markets to adults 21 and older. It would also ensure that those caught up in the gears of cannabis enforcement over the years are not forgotten. This policy change would come with strict criteria before a pot offender finds a reprieve.
“The MORE Act explicitly limits the charges that are eligible for expungement or resentencing to non-violent cannabis convictions without ‘kingpin’ enhancements,” Fox asserts. “In cases of resentencing of a person who is currently incarcerated on multiple convictions, only the portions of the sentence directly tied to eligible cannabis convictions would be considered and affected, and a judicial panel would weigh all the factors in a person’s case before making final decisions about whether to shorten their sentence.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the MORE Act will go the distance any time soon. Even if the Senate were to give it the favorable attention it deserves — an improbable move considering the power struggle within the upper chamber — President Biden still isn’t willing to give his full support to the cannabis cause. For now, pot offenders all over the country will continue to sit in prison while others (maybe even you) could join them one day. So, if there is a message that needs to be conveyed, according to Flores-Williams, faith that our lawmakers are looking out for our best interests is an ignorant and dangerous position. The time for asking “why” we’re still jailing pot offenders is over. Americans should demand as much from the actions of their government as they do casual society. Where’s the cancel culture when we really need it? Because keeping otherwise innocent people behind bars for weed is the real cancellable offense.
“Try not to be blindly obedient,” Flores-Williams advises. “The law and justice are different things, and to blindly follow the law without any concern for justice reduces you to a non-citizen. “That said, I don’t know anyone who thinks that someone should be doing life in prison for pot in 2022. Except maybe a DEA agent whose job depends on it.”