With the release of a video of Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, smoking crack while in office, and the admission that at least two US presidents smoked pot, as did the Beatles, Stones, and most of Hollywood, it seems worthwhile to consider the costs and benefits of our war on drugs, especially pot. Drugs are typically bad for productivity and usually bad for health. Thus, it seems worthwhile to regulate it, but most countries do not punish drug sale or use nearly as harshly as we do in the US.
While US penalties vary state by state, most states have high minimum penalties that a judge can not go below. In Michigan, where I live, medical marijuana is legalized, but all supply is still illegal. Marijuana cultivation, even for personal medical use, is a felony carrying a minimum punishment of 4 years in state prison and a $20,000 fine. For cultivation of more than 20 plants the minimum sentence is 7 years in prison and $500,000; and cultivating 200 or more plants results in 15 years plus a $10,000,000 fine. These are first-time, minimum sentences where the judge can not consider mitigating circumstances, like a prescription, for a drug that was accepted for use in the US in the 70s, is legal in Holland, legalized in Colorado, and is near-legal in Belgium. While many pot smokers were not served by the herb, many went on to be productive, e.g. our current president and the Beatles.
In Michigan, the mandatory minimums get worse if you are a repeat offender, especially a 3 time offender. Possession of hard drugs; and sales or cultivation of marijuana makes you a felon; a gun found on a felon adds 2 years and another felony. With three felonies you go to prison for life, effectively, so there is little difference between the sentence of a repeat violent mugger and a kid selling $10 rocks of crack in Detroit. America has more people in prison than Russia, China, or almost every industrialized nation, per capita, and the main cause is long minimum sentences.
In 2011, Michigan spent an average of $2,343 per month per prisoner, or $28,116/year: somewhat over 1.3 billion dollars per year in total. To this add the destruction of the criminal’s family, and the loss of whatever value he/she might have added to society. Reducing sentences by 10 or 20% would go a long way towards paying off Detroit’s bankruptcy, and would put a lot of useful people back into the work-force where they might do some good for themselves and the state. 60.8% of drug arrestees were employed before they were arrested for drugs, with an average income of $1050/month. That’s a lot of roofers, electricians, carpenters, and musicians — useful people. As best we can tell, the long sentences don’t help, but lead to higher rates of recidivism and increased violent behavior. If you spend years in jail, you are likely to become more violent, rather than less. Some 75% of drug convicts have no prior record of violent crime, so why does a first-time offense have to be a felony. If we need minimums, couldn’t it be 6 months and a $1000 fine, or only apply if there is violence.
Couldn’t we allow judges more leeway in sentencing, especially for drugs? Recall that Michiganders thought they’d legalized marijuana for medical use, and that even hard-drugs were legal not that long ago. There was a time when Coca-Cola contained cocaine and when Pope Leo was a regular drinker of cocaine laced wine. If the two presidents smoked pot, and the Mayor of Toronto could do a decent job after cocaine, why should we incarcerate them for life? Let’s balance strict justice with mercy; so the fabric of society is not strained to breaking.