Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

E.D. Kain asked:

Is anybody made better off by being incarcerated for a non-violent crime such as smoking marijuana – their records tarnished, their ability to get a job or even sometimes an apartment permanently hindered?

Great, passionate rhetoric, and yet hopelessly flawed.  People in the U.S. ARE NOT incarcerated for "smoking marijuana."  I would encourage you to read the annual report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Assistance which details demographic information about prisoners.

As you can see on pages 37 and 38, the majority of offenders in state prisons are there for violent offenses (50%). Another 20% are there for offenses that, while non-violent, take a significant financial and emotional toll on victims (burglary, fraud, etc.).  Another 10% are there for "public order" offenses, which sound innocuous, but which mean things like driving under the influence.  Is there really anyone out there who is going to argue that drunk drivers should be left out on the streets?

The last 20% are there for drug offenses.  But, they aren't there for simple possession.  They are there for possession with intent to distribute or trafficking charges that require possession of drugs in greater quantities than the average user is going to have on-hand, and often coupled with weapons possession or other charges.

People who get busted in possession of small quantities of drugs, such as a single joint, almost 100% of the time are going to be slapped on the hand, pay a fine, or do community service.  In a worst-case scenario, they may get probation, but that will usually only occur if the possession charge occurs in the same incident as other offenses or if the offender already has a criminal history and is on probation/parole.

I've worked in the field of gangs for close to 20 years.  I've never yet, even out of hundreds of gang members that I've known and worked with, seen a person locked up for possession. 

We simply do not have the jail/prison space anywhere in the U.S. to house offenders for low-level offenses like that.

Simple possession, 99% of the time, isn't even going to result in an individual going to the local county jail. 

In federal prisons, it is true that a large number of inmates are there for drug charges, but they tend to be major drug traffickers who are operating at a high enough level that they've been the focus of joint task force investigations and have caught the attention of federal prosecutors. 

Again, they aren't the guy down the street.  Federal prosecutors and federal law enforcement agencies don't have time to bother with those folks.  The people they focus on are criminals from organized crime groups and street gangs who usually have also been involved in multiple violent, weapons-involved crimes.

In my opinion, marijuana should absolutely be legalized.  But not because average users are being put in prison.  Rather, it should be legalized because the profits of marijuana help to feed drug gangs such as the Arellano Felix Cartel, which is responsible for dozens (hundreds, potentially) of murder.  And, those profits feed American and Central American/Mexican street gangs who kill more people on an annual basis in the U.S. than have ever been killed by terrorists.   And, because the costs of policing marijuana growers and distributors are prohibitive and pointless.  And, because marijuana usage is simply too common in the mainstream to make eradication efforts possible.

I understand that a lot of the drug war sites put out this kind of misinformation.  But, as a responsible and respected commentator, instead of taking their word for these kinds of claims, you need to do some fact-checking.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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