“Mr. Nance is entitled to his opinion on the deterrent effect of long sentences and of the death penalty,” Schlosser replied. But he reiterated the difference between state and federal mandatory minimums to highlight the arbitrary nature of the policies. “Had Young been convicted under Indiana state law, the maximum sentence for his crime would have been twenty-eight years—at most fourteen years served, and probably much less.”
David Schlesinger of Chandler, Arizona, questioned the accuracy of some of Schlosser’s data, and wrote that drug-related crimes “are among the most pernicious and vicious, with innocent children [often in the] crossfire of drug dealers fighting for schoolyard ‘turf’”:
Ask the parents of the three young children murdered by warring drug dealers in Chicago last summer how they feel about men selling a few pounds of dope. Mark Young was aware of the risk he took when he sold a few pounds. Why should he not be held responsible for his actions?
In his reply to Schlesinger, Schlosser noted that “marijuana offenders are not often found exchanging gunfire”:
In 1992, of the marijuana felons sent to federal prison 58 percent had no relevant criminal history at the time of sentencing; 91 percent were not considered organizers, leaders, managers, or supervisors of any drug organizations; and 92 percent did not own a firearm at the time of their arrest.
A few readers agreed with Schlosser’s conclusions.
Mark A. Kaplan of Burlington, Vermont, felt that the most frightening aspect of mandatory minimum sentencing was the “awesome power now vested in the U.S. attorneys who consider the exercise of compassion a sign of weakness.”
According to Peter Wilson of Phoenix, Arizona, the “laws are morally bankrupt.” The question is, he continued, “What happens to a society that equates robbery, rape, and murder, with selling someone a safe, nontoxic vegetable?”
Wes Howard-Brook of Seattle, Washington, wrote that the article exposed something about the “hopelessly dysfunctional nature” of the criminal-justice system as a whole. “‘Justice’—whether in its philosophical or in its theological sense,” he wrote, “has virtually nothing to do with the criminal process in our country. Rather, the system rewards winning, pure and simple.”
Finally, Jim Hunter of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, addressed how uniquely American these circumstances were. He pointed to an article from The Economist that reported that despite “hardline words” by public figures, the police in Britain were becoming “more pragmatic,” and had dramatically reduced the percentage of people caught using marijuana sent to jail.
Three years later, Schlosser followed up on his 1994 two-part series in an Atlantic article called “More Reefer Madness.” By then, many states were exploring alternative—and less expensive—sentencing practices, such as drug-treatment programs, intensive probation, short-term (90-day) stints in jail, or boot camps. Now Schlosser advocated more overtly for the decriminalization of the drug for personal use and in small amounts, but he argued that laws should remain strict on driving under the influence, growing and selling marijuana commercially, using it in public, and distributing it to young people. He concluded:
A society that punishes marijuana crimes more severely than violent crimes is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis. For too long the laws regarding marijuana have been based on racial prejudice, irrational fears, metaphors, symbolism, and political expediency. The time has come for a marijuana policy calmly based on the facts.
In terms of arrests, not much has changed: There were about 659,700 marijuana arrests in 2017. Legally, there has been some change on the state level. Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the drug for recreational use, and 33 states have legalized it for medical use; 22 states have decriminalized the drug. The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic (along with heroin, LSD, and peyote). As for mandatory minimum penalties, in 2016 the average time spent in prison for drug offenses of any kind was 94 months, which was more than twice the average sentence for offenders not charged under federal guidelines.