Ineffective legislation

Jeff Leard, Photography Editor
Jeff Leard, Photography Editor

Two years ago, Mark Young was sentenced by Judge Sarah Evans Barker to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He is not a murderer, rapist or even child molester. Those crimes might have justified such a sentence.

No, Young was caught brokering the sale of marijuana. He never handled the 700 pounds of pot with which his crime was connected, he was simply a middleman. In fact, he never met the two men who testified against him supporting his life sentence.

Although many people believe that punishments for crimes involving marijuana are fairly light, legislation put in place under the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 installed mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of drug offenses. This was the government’s second attempt at minimum sentences. The first was repealed in the late 1960’s when both political parties realized that anti-drug mandatory minimum sentences were failures.

Thousands of happy hemp smoking hippies stood by, doobies in hand, to confirm that the government had finally faced reality on the issue. Federal judges, members of Congress and even prosecutors had found the minimum sentences to be too severe and ineffective at preventing narcotic use.

Why have we re-enacted such ineffective legislation which punishes people more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing with a gun?

Although its possession carry the same weight as drugs such as LSD, heroin and cocaine, marijuana, a much milder drug, cannot fairly be classified alongside such elicit drugs. Even when compared to alcohol, marijuana is a mild drug. Unlike alcohol, hemp, according to the August 1994 issue of Atlantic Monthly, does not create a physical dependence in its users and is known to create a psychological dependence in only a few. More telling is the fact that not a single death has ever been attributed to smoking or consuming marijuana in the 5,000 years of the plant’s recorded use.

In fact, according to the Atlantic Monthly, those who use marijuana moderately are at no greater medical risk than those who moderately consume alcohol. While many prescription drugs are known to be fatal in certain dosages, marijuana is one of the few therapeutically active substances for which there is not a well-defined fatal dose. Estimates say that a person would have to smoke a hundred pounds of marijuana a minute for fifteen minutes to bring about a lethal response to the substance. That’s a lot of pot.

In 1992, Germany’s highest court touched off a national debate by ruling that small amounts of marijuana should no longer be subject to criminal penalties. In the decision, Judge Neskovic cited a German medical study which concluded that smoking one or two marijuana cigarettes a day was harmless.

Germany is not the only European country to take a relaxed stance on marijuana. Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Great Britain rarely enforce laws on marijuana, while Portugal, Austria and France have become increasingly tolerant of marijuana possession.

In contrast to this trend, America continues to enforce mandatory minimum sentences for those caught with marijuana. As violent criminals are released due to lack of space in jails, high flying marijuana users are still being given stiff sentences.

Mark Young now finds himself serving out his sentence among some of the most violent repeat offenders in the federal system, including murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

It is ludicrous that the U.S. continues to dish-out long sentences, especially as the criminal justice system struggles to find space for all of its violent criminals.

Certainly the criminal justice system has better things to worry about than enforcing laws which punish people for consuming a drug which is milder than alcohol.

Jeff Leard, Photography Editor
Jeff Leard
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