Town Hall Conservative Says Nobody’s Serving Time for Marijuana Possession
Rachel Alexander is a columnist at the conservative web site Town Hall. Today, in a piece entitled, “No One Serves Jail Time for Smoking Pot”, this former county prosecutor and editor of The Intellectual Conservative explains that “Smoking pot has actually been ‘de facto’ legalized across the U.S. The police look the other way, even if a neighbor rats on someone.”
For evidence, Alexander links to a report by the ONDCP’s office from John Walters’ tenure. He was George W. Bush’s Drug Czar from 2001-2009. According to that report:
In 1997, the year for which the most recent data are available, just 1.6 percent of the state inmate population were held for offenses involving only marijuana, and less than one percent of all state prisoners (0.7 percent) were incarcerated with marijuana possession as the only charge, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). An even smaller fraction of state prisoners in 1997 who were convicted just for marijuana possession were first-time offenders (0.3 percent).
Ignore for a moment that if her data were a person, it would be of legal age to vote by now. The statistics now aren’t that different. Those numbers do sound small; just 1.6 percent of state prisoners are there for marijuana, just 0.7 percent only for marijuana, and 0.3 percent for first-time marijuana charges.
Until you realize that as of 2005, there were 1,284,428 inmates in state correctional facilities in the United States. So that’s an estimate of 20,551 serving time for marijuana, 8,991 of them with marijuana as the only charge, and of them, 3,853 are first-time offenders.
So “No One Serves Jail Time For Smoking Pot” is just factually inaccurate. But Alexander attempts to deflect even those numbers by arguing that “the only time someone is sentenced to jail for smoking pot is if there is a more serious crime they are clearly guilty of, and the prosecutor or judge wants to give them a lighter sentence.” She describes repeat offenders who go free on technicalities and judges who want to go easy on thieves and burglars by slapping them on the wrist for pot possession.
I’ve been convicted of marijuana possession in Utah. The “more serious crime” I was guilty of was riding in a car which had window tinting too dark a shade under Utah law. That was the pretext for the freeway stop that actually begun eight miles earlier when we stopped at the gas station, where a sheriff parked there noticed the dreadlocked Rastafarian who was traveling with us. For my first time, non-violent marijuana offense I got to spend eight hours in jail and $5,000 bailing us out, despite the fact that I was not in possession of marijuana. Luckily, I’m self-employed, or my conviction could have meant the end of my job, followed by difficulty finding new work since I’d have to check the “have you been convicted of crime” box on the job application, and who knows, homelessness?
This argument by Alexander is a well-worn tactic by prohibitionists I call the Marijuana Minimization. Cops don’t look for it, nobody really gets busted for it, and if they do, it’s a slap on the wrist. But there are two main problems with this tactic. One, we see 700,000 arrests for marijuana every year in this country; obviously cops are looking for it. Two, if nobody’s really enforcing marijuana laws, why do we bother keeping them on the books?
Well, the reason why is because marijuana prohibition is a culture war that provides police with an extra-constitutional tool to investigate crimes and reap financial rewards. Are you a cop with a hunch that group of young black men on the street corner look suspicious? Claim you smell weed, stop and frisk them, and there may be a chance you find some. Then that weed rap can be used as a bargaining chip to get him to rat on someone else. Do you think that driver is up to no good? Pull them over for some pretext and use the K-9 to alert – whether there are drugs present or not – and you can then rummage through their car and potentially get to seize their cash and property. Even if you don’t find them up to no good, at least you’ve collected their mugshot and fingerprints for the future.
It’s not that marijuana prohibition is leading to prisons packed with pot smokers; that’s the strawman Alexander wants to fight. The problem is that marijuana prohibition leads to arrests, sitting in jail, being booked, paying bail, going to court, being on probation, submitting to urine screens, paying fines, doing community service, paying for rehab, and being a “drug criminal” for the rest of your life, judged to be a risk by potential employers, landlords, governments, even your kid’s Little League team or Boy Scout troop when you apply to be a leader of youth.
I have to laugh every time I read a small-government, fiscally-conservative, individual-responsibility, states-rights, strict-Constitutionalist, pro-liberty right-winger voice such support for the big-government, multi-billion-dollar budgeted, nanny-state, Federalist, anti-freedom war on marijuana.