Colorado and Washington state legalized cannabis for recreational use in January. But for the thousands in jail for marijuana possession in these states, the change didn’t mean much. Many have been left wondering if this significant change should allow prisoners can have their convictions overturned.
More than 600,000 people in the U.S. were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011, according to the FBI. In that same year, violent crime arrests in the U.S. totaled just over 500,000. The gap between these two numbers has been increasing because of this country’s harsh and counterproductive drug laws. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, someone is arrested for a marijuana-related offense every 48 seconds. Of these arrests, 87 percent of them are for possession, not for sale or manufacture. These numbers make me question whether or not strict marijuana laws are even working in the first place.
On paper, the status of prisoners in Colorado and Washington state does not change. Because the drug was illegal when the prisoners were convicted, the new laws do nothing to change those convictions. It raises the question, if it is really fair for these people to stay in jail for offenses that are no longer illegal.
In the beginning, Colorado and Washington had no policies in their marijuana legislation regarding reversal of sentences. But the Colorado Court of Appeals recently ruled that some marijuana possession sentences could be overturned. This is a good outcome from these laws, one which will hopefully help reduce the number of prisoners in an already crowded prison system. I’m left wondering if the U.S. is making criminals out of people who have only made small mistakes.
On a federal level, marijuana is still illegal — putting people in the states where it has been legalized into a strange limbo. After Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, President Barack Obama gave states the go-ahead to set their own marijuana laws. But even in states where marijuana is legalized recreationally, there is always the risk of prosecution if the federal government chooses to get involved.
No matter where you stand on the issue, it is important to remember that this isn’t about people seeking a high. It goes further than that. Legalization of marijuana has become a class and race issue, and people are being locked up every day for these petty crimes, tearing apart families and ruining lives. Marijuana has many potential medical benefits, and with thousands behind bars for marijuana possession in a country already overcrowded with prisoners, it’s about time for more people to really consider whether or not the United States’ war on marijuana is really working.