Marijuana smokers – hold your rejoicing. While the movement to legalize pot has been snowballing throughout the country, with many states moving to legalize medicinal use or decriminalize the substance statewide, buying, selling, possessing or using remains illegal under federal law.
How can pot users get arrested in legalized marijuana states?
State laws passed by voters in Washington and Colorado provide that smoking marijuana is legal – even recreationally. But under federal law, in effect in all fifty states, marijuana remains illegal, leaving users in legal limbo. Washington State alone has over 100,000 medicinal marijuana users and that number is sure to continue to grow.
Five people in Washington are on trial for growing medicinal marijuana in their home. Each claims to have a card from the doctor, which allows them to grow their own plants. One man is seventy years old. Nonetheless, they have all been charged and if convicted each would serve ten to forty years in prison. This is even after the Department of Justice has issued a guidance letter to federal agents asking them to focus efforts on drug trafficking, rather than the medicinal community.
In Massachusetts, a number of arrests and fines have been given out to people in possession of marijuana, even when they held a doctor’s note. These notes generally allow for a patient to grow or possess up to sixty days worth of marijuana, but police claim they are hard to authenticate and that the law is unclear about how much marijuana constitutes sixty days’ worth. Police say they don’t want to hassle with calling doctors, nor do they want to play judge, so they make the arrests and let the system sort it out.
So what does the future hold?
Public opinion opposes prosecution of marijuana users. Cash strapped states can no longer afford the soaring law enforcement and prison costs, and prefer the enormous tax revenues pot sales generate. In its first two months of legalization, Colorado pulled in $6 million from marijuana taxes, money that can be spent on schools, roads, infrastructure and other pressing public needs. Nationwide we spend over $1 billion to arrest and incarcerate marijuana users. What a waste of resources at a time when we’re slashing school programs.
The racial disparity in marijuana cases is astonishing. African Americans are four times as likely to be arrested for pot compared to whites, and twelve times as likely to be convicted, though blacks and whites use at roughly the same rates.
Federal law reeks of antiquated morality police days, and should be changed to keep up with the times and our values of liberty and equality. But for now, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, it reigns supreme over conflicting state laws.
In the meantime, different organizations are working to bring solutions now, such as the health department in Massachusetts, which aims to create an online database for police to easily check who has a doctor’s certification for medicinal marijuana. Americans for Safe Access seeks to bring education of medicinal marijuana to communities and policy makers and is helping those who have federal cases in medicinally legal states.
But until federal law is changed, marijuana users remain in violation and can be subject to prosecution at any time. This undermines the legitimacy of our criminal justice system and will surely be changed, though not soon enough for those currently being prosecuted.
Shouldn’t our criminal justice system focus on dangerous criminals?
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.