What Have We Been Smoking?

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  In March, a bill was introduced in the Senate which, if passed, would legalize state medical marijuana programs at the federal level, and take marijuana off the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule I drug list. Schedule I is reserved for drugs so dangerous that neither cocaine nor “meth” makes the list. The new law would move marijuana down a level of severity to join those substances, which the DEA classifies as having “less abuse potential than Schedule I drugs” like pot. Lest this sound like an arcane matter of federal drug classifications, let us be clear: Drug crime is the leading path into the federal prison system, and Americans put more people in federal prison for crimes related to marijuana than any other drug.

There are state laws on the books that specify prison sentences of five years for the possession of an ounce of marijuana. In Florida, the growing of 25 marijuana plants constitutes a second-degree felony. This is insane. To lock a man or a woman in a cell for anything to do with this plant ought to be something out of a dystopian novel. Yet we’ve gotten used to it, and on a grand scale. From 1980 to 2008 the U.S. prison population more than quadrupled, to 2.3 million. With about 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States of America today is home to almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This makes us the world leader in incarceration, in raw numbers, and second only to the Republic of Seychelles, population 90,024, when it comes to the rate at which we lock up our people. The so-called “war on drugs” has played a major part in this unprecedented shift: there are about 10 times as many people in our prisons today for drug offenses as there were in 1980.

Still, we should take comfort in the fact that these are mostly violent criminals and hardened drug kingpins, right? Not so. About half the inmates in the federal prison system are there for nonviolent drug crime – up from 16 percent in 1970 – and the leading drug involved is marijuana. Of course, none of this seems to have made marijuana remotely difficult to procure for those who want it. If once our federal prisons might have functioned to keep violent criminals off the streets, today they serve chiefly to lock away economic offenders, disproportionately members of ethnic minorities historically excluded from the mainstream economy. After drug offenses, the next most prevalent way to become an inmate in the federal prison system is through undocumented immigration, that other nonviolent “crime” I discuss in these pages.

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