Marijuana gives rise to insanity - not in its users but in the policies directed
against it. A nation that sentences the possessor of a single joint to life
imprisonment without parole but sets a murderer free after perhaps six years is,
the author writes, "in the grip of a deep psychosis"
by Eric Schlosser
In 1989 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, 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.
"Marijuana has not been de facto legalized, and the war on drugs is
not just about cocaine and heroin. In fact, today, when we don't have
enough jail cells for murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals,
there may be more people in federal and state prisons for marijuana
offenses than at any other time in U.S. history"
"The vigorous enforcement of marijuana laws has resulted in four million arrests
since the early 1980's. Owing to mandatory-minimum sentences, many of those
convicted are receiving stiff prison terms, even as violent criminals are released
for lack of space."
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, re-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.
In an era when the fear of violence pervades the United States,
small-time pot dealers are being given life sentences while violent
offenders are being released early, only to commit more crimes. The
federal prison system and thirty-eight state prison systems are now
operating above their rated capacity. Attempts to reduce dangerous
prison overcrowding have been hampered by the nation's drug laws.
Prison cells across the country are filled with nonviolent drug
offenders whose mandatory-minimum sentences do not allow for parole.
At the same time, violent offenders are routinely being granted early
release. A recent study by the Justice Department found that in 1992
violent offenders on average were released after serving less than
half of their sentences. A person convicted of murder in the United
States could expect a punishment of less than six years in prison. A
person convicted of kidnapping could expect about four years. Another
Justice Department study revealed that almost a third of all violent
offenders who are released from prison will be arrested for another
violent crime within three years. No one knows how many violent crimes
these released inmates commit without ever being caught. In 1992 the
average punishment for a violent offender in the United States was
forty-three months in prison. The average punishment, under federal
law, for a marijuana offender that same year was about fifty months in prison.
Even legislation aimed at reducing violent crime has been subverted by
the legal underpinnings of the drug war. According to a report by the
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, California's much-heralded
"three strikes, you're out" law has imprisoned twice as many people
for marijuana offenses as for murder, rape, and kidnapping combined.
The vehemence of marijuana's opponents and the harsh punishments
routinely administered to marijuana offenders cannot be explained by a
simple concern for public health. Paraplegics, cancer patients,
epileptics, people with AIDS, and people suffering from multiple
sclerosis have in recent years been imprisoned for using marijuana as
medicine. The attack on marijuana, since its origins early in this
century, has in reality been a cultural war - a moral crusade in
defense of traditional American values. The laws used to fight
marijuana are now causing far more harm to those values than the drug
itself. In order to eliminate marijuana use, state and federal
legislators have sanctioned an enormous increase in prosecutorial
power, the emergence of a class of professional informers, and the
widespread confiscation of private property by the government without
trial - legal weapons reminiscent of those used in the former
Soviet-bloc nations. The long prison sentences given to growers and
dealers have pushed marijuana prices skyward, creating a domestic
industry whose annual revenues now rival those of cotton, soybeans, or
corn. U.S. public officials, like their counterparts in Mexico,
Colombia, and Bolivia, are being corrupted with drug money. Millions
of ordinary Americans have been arrested for marijuana offenses in the
past decade, and hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned, yet
marijuana use is increasing and has regained its status as a symbol of
youthful rebellion. Instead of debating the wisdom of our current
policies, members of Congress and of the Administration are competing
to see who can appear toughest on drugs. For years the war on drugs
has been driven by political concerns, without regard to its
consequences. But at the state and local levels, where the costs of
that war are most keenly felt and unlikely alliances have begun to
form, there are signs that madness may give way to common sense.
THE 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act marked a profound shift not only in America's
drug-control policy but also in the workings of its criminal-justice system.
The bill greatly increased the penalties for federal drug offenses. More important,
it established mandatory-minimum sentences, transferring power from federal
judges to prosecutors. The mandatory minimums were based not on an individual's
role in a crime but on the quantity of drugs involved. Judges in such cases could no
longer reduce a prison term out of mercy or compassion. Prosecutors were given
the authority to decide whether a mandatory-minimum sentence applied.
This new law did not represent the culmination of a careful
deliberative process. Nor did it reflect the thinking of the nation's
best legal minds. The mandatory-minimum provisions were written and
enacted in a matter of weeks without a single public hearing. The most
important drug legislation in a generation - the enforcement of which
would more than triple the size of the federal-prison population and
whose sentencing philosophy would influence state drug laws across the
country - was prompted by the death of a popular basketball player
shortly before a congressional election.
Len Bias was a local hero in Washington, D.C., clean-cut and
all-American, a University of Maryland basketball star who had been
drafted by the Boston Celtics at the age of twenty-two. On June 17,
1986, Bias attended a ceremony in Boston to sign a contract with the
Celtics. Two days later he died of heart failure, allegedly caused by
crack cocaine. When Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill returned to
Boston for the Fourth of July congressional recess, everyone seemed to
be talking about the death of the Celtics' first-round draft pick. As
fears of crack cocaine swept the nation, O'Neill grew worried that the
Democratic Party might be labeled soft on drugs. He returned to
Washington in mid-July determined to pass an omnibus drug-control bill
before the upcoming election. The legislation had to be drafted within
a month. Eric E. Sterling, who was then the assistant counsel for the
House Subcommittee on Crime, recently told me that staff members
scrambled to assemble a bill. The process of selecting drug quantities
to trigger the mandatory-minimum sentences was far from scientific,
according to Sterling: "Numbers were being picked out of thin air."
The drug-control bill left the subcommittee in mid-August, while many
academics and government officials were away on vacation. There had
been little time to study the potential costs of the legislation or
its ramifications for the criminal-justice system. In the absence of
public hearings there had been no input from federal judges, prison
authorities, or drug-abuse experts. President and Mrs. Reagan were
calling for tough new drug-control measures, and House Democrats
rushed to provide them. Only sixteen congressmen voted against the
bill, which passed in the Senate by a voice vote. Reagan signed the
final version of the bill on October 27, just a week before Election Day.
In Smoke and Mirrors, which was published last year, Dan Baum, a
former Wall Street Journal reporter, gives a definitive account of the
politics surrounding Reagan's war on drugs. Conservative parents'
groups opposed to marijuana had helped to ignite the Reagan
Revolution. Marijuana symbolized the weakness and permissiveness of a
liberal society; it was held responsible for the slovenly appearance
of teenagers and their lack of motivation. Carlton Turner, Reagan's
first drug czar, believed that marijuana use was inextricably linked
to "the present young-adult generation's involvement in anti-military,
anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations."
A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis
on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of
illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders
was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs. The drug
war soon became a bipartisan effort, supported by liberals and
conservatives alike. Nothing was to be gained politically by defending
drug abusers from excessive punishment.
Drug-control legislation was proposed, almost like clockwork, during every congressional-election year in the 1980s.
Election years have continued to inspire bold new drug-control schemes. On September 25 of last year Speaker of the House
Newt Gingrich introduced legislation demanding either a life sentence or the death penalty for anyone caught bringing more
than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. Gingrich's bill attracted twenty-six co-sponsors, though it
failed to reach the House floor. A few months earlier Senator Phil Gramm had proposed denying federal welfare benefits,
including food stamps, to anyone convicted of a drug crime, even a misdemeanor. Gramm's proposal was endorsed by a wide
variety of senators - including liberals such as Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, Patrick Leahy, and Paul Wellstone. A revised
version of the amendment, limiting the punishment to people convicted of a drug felony, was incorporated into the welfare
bill signed by President Clinton during the presidential campaign. Possessing a few ounces of marijuana is a felony in most
states, as is growing a single marijuana plant. As a result, Americans convicted of a marijuana felony, even if they are
disabled, may no longer receive federal welfare or food stamps. Convicted murderers, rapists, and child molesters, however,
will continue to receive these benefits.