During the 1980s criminal penalties for marijuana offenses were made much tougher, at both the state and federal levels. More resources were devoted to their enforcement. And punishments more severe than those administered during the "reefer madness" of the 1930s became routine. As a result there may be more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any other time in the nation's history.
Mark Young is one of those prisoners. In May of 1991 Young was arrested at his Indianapolis home for brokering the sale of 700 pounds of marijuana grown on a farm in nearby Morgan County. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking. He had no history of violent crime. His two prior felony convictions--one for attempting to fill a false prescription, the other for possession of a few Quaaludes and amphetamines--were more than a decade old. For each of these convictions he had received a suspended sentence and a one-dollar fine. Young's role in the marijuana transaction had been that of a middleman. He never handled either the marijuana or the money. He had simply introduced two partners in a marijuana farm, Claude Atkinson and Ernest Montgomery, to a couple of men from Florida who were acting on behalf of a New York buyer. Under federal law Young was charged with "conspiracy to manufacture" marijuana and was held liable for the cultivation of all 12,500 marijuana plants grown on the Morgan County farm. The U.S. attorney now had the option of filing for an "enhancement," owing to Young's prior drug felonies; this would trigger a mandatory-minimum sentence upon conviction. After being denied bail, Mark Young learned that his marijuana offense could lead to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the chance of parole. His case helps shed light not only on a quiet revolution in the realm of marijuana laws but also on the often perverse consequences of mandatory-minimum sentences.
THERE have been mandatory-minimum sentences in the United States since the days of the first Congress, most of them adopted to punish narrowly defined crimes. A number of the old mandatory minimums are still on the books, for offenses such as "robbery by pirates" (1790) and "practice of pharmacy and sale of poisons in China" (1915). The overwhelming majority of criminal laws passed by Congress specify only a maximum sentence. It has historically been the role of a federal judge to determine whether a convicted offender deserves that maximum, a lesser sentence, or no prison sentence at all. Until seven years ago a federal judge had great leeway in choosing sentences: Congress set only the upper limits, thereby protecting citizens from excessive punishment. Parole boards served as another brake on unduly harsh sentences, deciding when prisoners merited early release.