I've represented a lot of people facing jail time for the sole reason that they smoked marijuana. I'm sad to say that despite my best efforts some of those people have gone to jail. What makes me sick to my stomach is that some of those people have gone to prison for nothing more than puffing on a joint. How is that possible you ask? The maximum punishment for first offense possession of marijuana is 30 days isn't it? That's true, but it doesn't take into account probation violations. Believe me when I tell you that lengthy sentences are being handed down regularly to people who have done nothing more than smoke marijuana while on probation.
Let me give you an illustration. A defendant is convicted of grand larceny when he's 20 years-old. He gets a fairly typical sentence of 5 years suspended conditioned on supervised probation and 5 years good behavior. In the years that follow, he gets his life back on track. He's working a steady job. He settles down and starts a family. He's paying taxes, supporting his family, and settling into a life of adult responsibilities. After a long day at work, he occasionally likes to spark up a bowl to mellow out. It doesn't negatively affect his life in any meaningful way. He still gets up early everyday and goes to work. His employer likes him. He loves and supports his family. What's the problem with this scenario? In a sane and rational world, the answer is nothing. In the everyday reality of the court system, it's a big problem for our hypothetical defendant. There is the very real possibility that he could be ripped away from his family and thrown behind bars.
We have to stop this madness. Study after study has demonstrated that marijuana is no more harmful (and in fact is less harmful) than alcohol. The theory that marijuana is a gateway drug that inexorably leads to the use of harder drugs is laughable. By that ridiculous logic, the guy who drinks a few Miller Lites at happy hour is likely to slide into sticking syringes into his arm. State governments have slowly started to awaken to the fact that the War on Marijuana (and larger War on Drugs) has been an unmitigated disaster. President Nixon declared his War on Drugs including marijuana in 1971. That war has now raged for longer than World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Afghanistan combined. The result has been billions of dollars spent, millions of people incarcerated, families torn apart, and zero reduction in the consumption of drugs. A number of states have decriminalized marijuana, and some have even legalized it. My hope is that Virginia may not be far behind. In November 2016, the state senate majority leader Tommy Norment was quoted in the Virginian-Pilot as saying "I think it’s absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana."
For the time being, smoking marijuana remains a criminal offense and people all over the state continue to go to jail and prison for nothing more than smoking it. I have listened to some people justify lengthy sentences using the logic that smoking marijuana supports Mexican drug cartel violence. This argument gets it exactly backwards. Marijuana smokers have nothing to do with gang violence; our government's ridiculous prohibition is responsible alone. The Washington Post reported that since states started legalizing marijuana, imports from Mexico have gone down by over 40% in just a few years. It's simple high school level economics. Marijuana is only profitable to cartels if it's illegal. The cartels can't compete with legitimate American entrepreneurs who have entered the markets in places like Colorado and California with cheaper and higher quality marijuana. Think about it. Legalization in a few states has wiped out nearly half of marijuana imports in a few years while 4 decades of prohibition accomplished zilch.
The criminal justice system hasn't caught up. In certain courtrooms, we're still living in the dark ages of Reefer Madness. We need to wake up right now. Every person who goes to jail or prison for smoking marijuana is a moral and economic travesty. Even the coldest hearted drug warrior cannot justify imprisoning a man at the cost of nearly $30,000 per year to taxpayers for smoking weed. The criminal attorney community, both prosecutors and defense attorneys, need to work together to come up with a more sensible solution. When we're enjoying drinks together after court, we need to realize that we're all being profound hypocrites. Adults can responsibly enjoy marijuana just as they can responsibly enjoy alcohol. Let's be on the right side of history. Marijuana might still be illegal for the time being, but that doesn't mean we have to be lemmings jumping off the cliffs of insanity (Princess Bride reference).