According to recent statistics, over 50% of drug arrests in the United States are related to marijuana. Considering that there are cities across the nation that have decriminalized cannabis, as well as states that have passed bills to legalize it for medical and/or recreational use, it seems strange that this percentage is still so high. Considering the growing shift in the nation away from criminalization, now may be the time to consider alternative ways to punish marijuana offenders that have a more positive impact on the nation.
Legal Status Isn’t Retroactive
Now that marijuana laws have begun to change and states like Colorado have legalized it, it seems logical to release prisoners who were previously arrested for marijuana possession. But that hasn’t happened. Even though it would save the state $20,000 a year per prisoner, there is no bill proposed to free individuals who broke a law that no longer exists. In the four states that have legalized marijuana completely, those who were arrested, charged and given sentences are sharing prison cells with individuals who committed crimes that are still considered felonies. Even if officials agree that these marijuana offenders should be responsible for completing the rest of their sentence, it makes sense to have them do so under different circumstances.
A Different Prison?
As of 2009, states began closing prisons due to the decline in the number of prisoners in the United States. However it’s challenging to repurpose these old, closed prisons. The problem here is that these facilities are difficult to use for a different purpose, and therefore sit unused. If states are not going to let marijuana offenders go after legalizing cannabis, it makes sense to send them to smaller, lower-security facilities such as these older prisons so that these individuals can complete the rest of their sentences in a safer, better-suited environment.
Charge Civil Fines
It’s sort of ridiculous to think that possession of just under an ounce of marijuana earns you a $100 fine in California, but can land you up to 180 days in jail in Texas. The War on Drugs has been a four-decade-long attack on cannabis users and has led to a large number of arrests that have cost taxpayers an exorbitant amount of money. Why not change the way the system works and generate income rather than spend copious amounts on jailing offenders? With government entities arguing over the price of programs such as universal healthcare, it’s only right that the government turns useless spending into a revenue stream. By fining marijuana offenders rather than imprisoning them, the government can earn revenue that can be put towards more important purposes such as healthcare reform.
Cannabis legalization is supported by the majority of Americans, so sentencing users and low-end drug dealers to prison time isn’t solving a long-term problem. Instead, it’s costing taxpayers large amounts of money to shelter, feed and clothe these individuals. Even if offenders do get sent to prison, minor offenders shouldn’t have to spend time with criminals who committed serious felonies. By shifting how we punish marijuana offenders, we can support a system that encourages appropriate responses to misdemeanors, rather than one that fails to address the changing legal realities of our time.