Prisoners question jail time due to new drug laws

By Sam Leon | Student Columnist

So far in the past year, we have seen two states in the country prevail in their much pressed-for efforts in the reform of marijuana law. Colorado may be the biggest success story so far for marijuana legalization supporters—where a person can legally purchase the herb purely for pleasure. The recreational turn for marijuana’s legality is a huge step, as is the permission of medicinal use. Now, fewer smokers need worry about being reprimanded for their purchase and possession.

But what about those who are already serving sentences for non-violent, marijuana related offenses? It seems the issue hasn’t yet reached a public boiling point—not even close actually. In all of the news about marijuana and its emergence into a mainstream, accepting America, those who are serving time for crimes that are no longer valid have been on the sidelines of political conversation.

This issue deserves to surface and there is some justice that needs to be granted for a portion of those in jail.

It is common in most of the world’s countries to alleviate sentencing when the related law changes—but not in the United States. In fact, according to BBC News writer Aiden Lewis in “US marijuana laws: Will records be wiped clean?” the US is one of just 22 countries in the world that does not provide for some form of automatic relief. This survey was taken from 193 countries.

As with so many of our public issues, there now becomes a battle between the moral and the political with drug sentencing. The fact of the matter is, and probably the most powerful driving force in the argument can be summed up in a single sentence: there are people behind bars for doing something that is now legal. A bill that would make these types of appeals easier did exist last year but died quickly, not making it far.

Can you imagine, being in jail for something and hearing that with a swift change of state law, others doing the same thing are free to do so legally and publicly without ramifications? Here, the only difference is timing. Though timing unfairly takes victims in this case, there are steps that can be taken to replenish some fairness.

When considering the issue we must consider multiple factors. First, that there are different types of marijuana-related offenses—some involving trafficking and possession, some simple possession and paraphernalia charges, and the muddier sentences that involve violence and drug rings.

Those that have mixed violence with their marijuana certainly do not deserve to have freedom from both the moral and political standpoint. Those that have been charged with non-violently trafficking large amounts may be the most complicated to decide on. If their fate becomes a public issue, these people should be put under review for their original crimes and the states with legal marijuana, like Colorado, should compare this original sentence with the new authority on personal sales that fall under the reformed marijuana laws, adjusting accordingly.

We must not forget about those that have been caught with small or relatively small amounts of the plant, smoking it without harm or endangerment involved. These people that very well could have had police enforcement for being caught smoking a single joint, suffer a dirtied record. According to High Times contributor Rick Cusick’s article, “Inside Obama’s Clemency Plan for Drug Prisoners,” clemency has been pursued concerning crack-cocaine violators with outrageously long sentencing. Obama backs this effort because of the huge race disparities that such past drug related detainments has produced.

So far, prominent marijuana advocates and attorneys affiliated with High Times have tried for clemency for some marijuana violators, but US government officials have not responded.

Having a record with even a non-violent, seemingly minor offense can severely maim someone’s chances at many opportunities, including employment. For these offenders in newly-legalized states, automatic relief should be offered to them and their record should be wiped clean, giving them the socio-economic acceptance and mobility that other pot smokers now have.

The counter argument in this case would be that no matter the current legal situation, the person jailed or holding a criminal record for marijuana still committed a crime. This is true. The person did commit a crime then. But a strong moral argument can easily blow this opposition to pieces. The states that have legalized have made their decision not just on some piece of paper with writing on it, but on a substance as a whole.

They have done research extensively, taken polls, dug into the historical stigmas on the plant, and listened carefully to their people on this issue. Through this careful listening and research, they have re-oriented their views on marijuana as a harmful substance and re-introduced it safely as an alternative medication and even a recreational treat.

The item itself is now accepted in these states as well as the people that use it. This would mean that either there was a fault in the states legal and political system, or that the people of such states simply would like to relieve the plant and its users from alienation. In either case, these points lead me to strongly believe that any argument for a cling to the past would prove baseless and foolish. A systematic and careful look into record-relief is certainly due in marijuana-friendly states.

Sam Leon is a junior English writing major and can be reached at