Non-Violent Cannabis Arrests Don’t Need Hard Punishments
Over the years of co-existing with Cannabis, there has been a shift in the narrative when speaking about legal issues involving Cannabis. Since the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937, there has been a stigma associated with Cannabis and its use (both recreational and medical).
More recently, however, a go-to attack on legalization involves copious amounts of Cannabis related arrests. A quote from the ACLU's review of Marijuana Arrests & Punishments states, "Just under half of the million and a half annual arrests for non-violent drug violations are for marijuana. Because the vast majority of drug arrests are for non-violent offenses, this means that marijuana use is responsible for close to one half of this country's "drug problem."
What’s With The Third Degree?
It is imperative to establish one defining fact: Cannabis is still stigmatized. No matter how many states legalize (and continue to legalize) Cannabis, there will always exist a stigma that dates back many years. Study after study continues validating the efficacy of Cannabis use for both medical and recreational purposes, and no matter how many professionals and researchers continue to advocate for legalization, the “Just Say No” mentality will continue to reign supreme for years to come.
So what’s the deal with the third degree? In other words, why are people still so tough on Cannabis? Well, there is no one single answer. Many have speculated that it’s simply a cultural aspect that the U.S. has developed; others throw conspiracy theories that it’s a way for the government to control the medical properties that Cannabis contains. Honestly, we may never know the exact reason as to why. What we do know is that Cannabis arrests are simple sentencings in illegal states.
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For example, because of the ease in which law enforcement can get a simple, non-violent possession charge to stick (often with harsh punishment), the "revolving door" begins. As stated by the ACLU, "Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses result in prisons overfilled with non-violent marijuana offenders serving long sentences, often disproportionate to their crime." To show how far back this dates, see the FBI's review of 1997's Marijuana Policy Project, "According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports Division's Annual Report, "Crime in the United States," there were 695,201 marijuana arrests in 1997 (more than in any previous year). 87.2% of these were for mere "possession." Only 12.8% were for "sale/manufacture,".
These harsh laws keep our prisons populated, and steady numbers of arrests never hurt the prison-industrial complex. For example, a study by the ACLU found that “marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana.” While the study is outdated by a decade, what isn’t outdated is the lasting effects that those Non-Violent offenders felt and continue to feel.
Today, with the rise in States that have legalized Cannabis both recreationally and medically, the number of arrests has gone down, There were a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests in 2019—representing 35 percent of all drug arrests—according to FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That’s down from 663,367 the prior year and 659,700 in 2017.
Though the decrease is arrests is apparent, many questions pertaining to those convicted of these crime remain. These are questions that policymakers can’t come to reasonable and actionable answers on. Do we release currently incarcerated Non-Violent Cannabis offenders? What about those previously incarcerated for Non-Violent Cannabis offenses? Do we clear their records? What seems like questions with common sense answers seem to have those on Capitol Hill stumped.
Some have tried to fix these problems with little to no avail. For example, Florida Senate Bill 468 “Expunction of Criminal History Records Relating to Certain Cannabis Offenses” provided a solution to some of the aforementioned questions. This bill, in its simplest form, offered a program for Non-Violent offenders to expunge their criminal records. Depending on the severity of their case, and on a case-by-case basis, SB 468 was an opportunity for low-amount-non-Violent offenders to absolve themselves of a staining part of their pasts. This bill, though short-lived, was an offer of hope for many individuals who did no harm. Though it passed through the Senate, it was shot down in the early stages of House discussion.
It is important to not however, that few states have successfully implemented a pardoning program of sorts for certain Non-Violent offenses, Florida is not one of these states, regrettably.
Looking at the numbers, it seems almost silly to continue to punish those who committed Non-Violent Cannabis crimes when so many states continue to legalize Cannabis. As for the future, though bleak for the incarcerated and previously incarcerated, there still is some hope. Even though SB 468 was shot down in discussion, the bill making it that far through a State circuit does rally a tad bit of hope for the humanitarians in the State of Florida.
As for the States that have been successful in expunction programs, though few and far between, these programs have helped to better the lives of individuals residing in those states who have faced minor Cannabis-related infractions with the law. These states are Colorado, Illinois, North Dakota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Washington State. These few are beacons of hope and excellent markers for fellow legal States.
A more permanent and feasible solution would be a federal mandate or program of expunction, this hope, however, is more of a fever-dream in our divisive political climate. Yet, for those who dare to hope, a wishful and merciful option for Non-Violent Cannabis offenders may one day be a reality.
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