DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: An opinion signed by three appellate judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, criticized a federal trial judge for returning a man to prison because of his marijuana use. As Judge Richard Posner’s opinion for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit noted, there was no indication that the man “deals, or has ever dealt, in marijuana or any illegal drug.” His previous employers said that they were “impressed by his work ethic and would be glad to hire him back after he was released from prison.” Nevertheless, federal district Judge Sara Darrow sentenced him to 15 months in prison for marijuana use and for “violat[ing] rules of the halfway house where he lived for a time after completion of his prison sentence.”
Judge Posner responded to this sentence with a blunt critique: “we have our doubts that imprisonment is an appropriate treatment for a marijuana habit.”
The facts of this case are tragic, and Posner responds to them with a somewhat unusual opinion. The defendant, Jesse Smith, grew up in a broken home. His father was imprisoned for murder, and his mother used crack cocaine. By age 18, he had a criminal record that included burglary and fighting with cops. Not long thereafter, he was sentenced to two years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Yet, as Posner’s opinion notes, Smith’s “criminal career, except for continued use of marijuana, ended five years ago.” During the time Smith spent out of prison, he worked for a living and earned solid reviews from his employers. Smith “had a bank account and actually paid his bills.” He also has three children.