Destination Prison

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In early February, a Montgomery County Maryland Judge sentenced Joseph Daniel Mlller, age 23, to five years in prison for selling marijuana.

Miller’s operations had brought more than 85 pounds of marijuana from Oregon and California into Maryland, a state in which marijuana possession has been decriminalized, but unlike these Western states, retains criminal penalties for marijuana sales. Miller’s distribution network involved up to 20 people, with packages of marijuana being delivered to various houses from which runners would deliver parcels to retail dealers.

This was not the first-time Miller faced sentencing for marijuana sales, serving 17 days prior to work release for a similar offense in 2013, a factor the court and prosecutors considered prior to sentencing for the current charges. Miller will serve five years in prison without any chance of parole and faces additional penalties, known as “backup” prison time, should he get into legal trouble after his eventual release from prison.

Miller wanted to make enough money selling marijuana to finance his long-term plans to go to medical school. He was, appropriately, repentant in court as he faced sentencing, which includes 10 years of backup time and five years of probation.

According to the Washington Post, Miller “acknowledged he had not taken the earlier conviction seriously” and told the court that “I do want to change,” he said. “The first time, I will be honest, I didn’t change, and it was a big mistake that I made. And now I’m reaping serious consequences.”

Miller’s attorney, Robinson Rowe, argued to the court that his client was a very smart guy, that he ran his business without paperwork and kept all the information in his head. Rowe reported that even investigators made comments along the lines of “‘Man, if this guy could learn how to focus this and apply it toward another business, he would become a mogul of some sort. ”

The judge was not impressed; she had heard this before.

Circuit Judge Mary Beth McCormick told Miller: “Sure, you’re smart. But that also makes it bad, too. Because you’re smart enough to know you were facing significant sanctions. And you knew by putting it in small packages that cut down your exposure. That was deliberate and detailed. And all those different addresses—amazing.”

The judge also expressed her opinion to Miller that, “If you used marijuana on a regular basis, you’d be too stupid to conduct such an operation.”

In 2013, the first year Miller was arrested for selling marijuana, the Uniform Crime Reports indicates that there were 84,058 arrest for marijuana sales in the United States. While data has not been released yet for 2016, by 2015 the number of sales arrests had fallen to 68,481—reduction of little consolation to Joseph Miller.

Statistics are just that, statistics, numbers, indicators of trends and facts that inform arguments about public policy. But behind these numbers are stories, often stories like this one.

People who sell marijuana know the risks involved, and they often make a nice amount of money. They may not appreciate the risks, but that’s a different issue. More escape arrest than the relatively small percentage that gets caught. But that’s another statistic—Joseph Miller is going to spend the next five years in prison for selling marijuana in an age where in many other states such conduct is legal and in an age where by the time he is released from prison, such conduct may well be legal in most of the United States.

Laws against selling marijuana do not receive nearly enough attention.

The debate over legalization focuses on the injustice of sending people to jail for possession and use, and increasingly so these days on the tax revenue that can be obtained through regulation. However, laws against selling marijuana are rarely subjected to the scrutiny they deserve. Prohibition creates incentives to sell marijuana, and they create an illegal activity in order to justify law enforcement authority to selectively address and, in many cases, profit from it.

In policy terms, there is a general framework to consider whether it is sufficient or effective to prohibit supply, prohibit use or prohibit both.

The shift to decriminalization is based on an argument that prohibition of use is costly, unjust and inefficient and by default is based on an argument that selling marijuana is the real crime that deserves official sanctions. But this begs the question, so-to-speak, if marijuana use is not so bad as to deserve criminal sanctions, what’s wrong with selling it?

By the same logic that it is not right to arrest someone for using marijuana, for possessing a small amount of it, than how can it be justified to make the sale of marijuana subject to a penalty of five years in prison?

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