EIGHT years ago Douglas Lamar Gray bought a pound of marijuana in a room at the Econo Lodge in Decatur, Alabama. He planned to keep a few ounces for himself and sell the rest to some friends. Gray was a Vietnam veteran with an artificial leg. As a young man, he'd been convicted of a number of petty crimes, none serious enough to warrant a prison sentence. He had stayed out of trouble for a good thirteen years. He now owned a business called Gray's Roofing and Remodeling Service. He had a home, a wife, and a two-year-old son. The man who sold him the drug, Jimmy Wilcox, was a felon just released from prison, with more than thirty convictions on his record. Wilcox was also an informer employed by the Morgan County Drug Task Force. The pound of marijuana had been supplied by the local sheriff's department, as part of a sting. After paying Wilcox $900 for the pot, which seemed like a real bargain, Douglas Lamar Gray was arrested and charged with "trafficking in cannabis." He was tried, convicted, fined $25,000, sentenced to life in prison without parole, and sent to the maximum-security penitentiary in Springville, Alabama -- an aging, overcrowded prison filled with murderers and other violent inmates. He remains there to this day. Under the stress of his imprisonment Gray's wife attempted suicide with a pistol, survived the gunshot, and then filed for divorce. Jimmy Wilcox, the informer, was paid $100 by the county for his services in the case.
Gray's punishment, although severe, is by no means unusual in the United States. The laws of at least fifteen states now require life sentences for certain nonviolent marijuana offenses. In Montana a life sentence can be imposed for growing a single marijuana plant or selling a single joint. Under federal law the death penalty can be imposed for growing or selling a large amount of marijuana, even if it is a first offense. The rise in marijuana use among American teenagers became a prominent issue during last year's presidential campaign, fueled by Republican accusations that President Bill Clinton was "soft on drugs." Teenage marijuana use has indeed grown considerably since 1992; by one measure it has doubled. But that increase cannot be attributed to any slackening in the enforcement of the nation's marijuana laws. In fact, the number of Americans arrested each year for marijuana offenses has increased by 43 percent since Clinton took office. There were roughly 600,000 marijuana-related arrests nationwide in 1995 -- an all-time record. More Americans were arrested for marijuana offenses during the first three years of Clinton's presidency than during any other three-year period in the nation's history. More Americans are in prison today for marijuana offenses than at any other time in our history. And yet teenage marijuana use continues to grow.
The war on drugs, launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, began as an assault on marijuana. Its effects are now felt throughout America's criminal-justice system. In 1980 there were almost twice as many violent offenders in federal prison as drug offenders. Today there are far more people in federal prison for marijuana crimes than for violent crimes. More people are now incarcerated in the nation's prisons for marijuana than for manslaughter or rape.