Marijuana Laws: Draconian Federal Laws Lead to Ridiculous Sentences

Marijuana is still classified by federal law as a controlled substance, and therefore the use, possession, cultivation, distribution or sale is illegal. Eighteen states have passed legislation legalizing medical marijuana, but that won’t protect you from the federal government. Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but that won’t protect you from the federal government either. The growing conflict between state legislation and federal law on marijuana usage is being dropped right in the lap of President Obama. In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, he said, “It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal.” Despite Obama’s statement to the contrary, the federal government continues its war on marijuana users. The conflict has to be resolved and Obama needs to take the lead.

The government is blatantly hypocritical in its policy on marijuana. While the president makes overtures that recreational and medicinal marijuana users are not a top priority of “federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs,” local law enforcement use the federal law to continue to arrest and incarcerate hundreds of thousands for marijuana possession. In fact the government is quite active in its enforcement of marijuana laws. In 2011 there were over 600,000 arrests, citations and/or summonses issued for marijuana possession — the highest of any arrest category. Weedblog.com noted “that police in the U.S. arrest someone for marijuana every 42 seconds and that 87% of those arrests are for possession alone.” That is a lot of “low priority” arrests.

Obama’s response was typical: “This is a tough problem, because Congress has not yet changed the law.” Obama said that he wanted “Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to examine the legal questions surrounding conflicting state and federal laws on drugs.”

Maybe he should start with examining why the government collects tax revenue on marijuana-growers while prosecuting them for growing marijuana? Some cities charge licensing fees and sales taxes for marijuana dispensaries; however the owners “pay federal income tax, often at high rates because their businesses do not qualify for many deductions.”

Obama could have Holder look into the case of Chris Williams. Williams was a medical marijuana provider in Montana. Medical marijuana growers are legal in Montana, but he was arrested under federal law, therefore he was not allowed to use the state law as a defense. He was arrested, charged, and convicted of violating eight federal drug laws. Williams turned down all plea bargain offers feeling that he had the law on his side. He was wrong. Mandatory minimum sentencing means he will do no less than 80 years in prison.  Williams’ arrest was part of federal program targeting medical marijuana growers. On this Obama has been very clear: “I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana.”

The White House will have to respond to the Chris Williams case. A petition requesting a full pardon has reached the 25,000 signatures required to receive an official response from the Office of Public Engagement.