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More Reefer Madness

The Atlantic Monthly
April 1997

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

EIGHT years ago 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, and 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. 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, 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 rest of this article can be found at The Atlantic Monthly Online]