Now that Oregon has placed Measure 80 (OCTA) on the ballot to legalize personal possession and cultivation of marijuana, the police-prison-rehab industrial complex is ratcheting up the rhetoric to distort, confuse, and dissuade the public from doing what a majority of them support – legalizing marijuana – and thereby costing cops, wardens, and counselors thousands of customers and millions of dollars.
In a radio ad that played today on Portland’s talk radio airwaves, a group called “The Truth in Sentencing Project” tried to downplay the life-altering consequences of a marijuana arrest by suggesting that Oregon’s prisons are not filled with non-violent drug offenders.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Oregon’s sentencing laws and the criminal justice and prison systems and the Truth in Sentencing Project’s goal is to dispel those misconceptions,” said Steve Doell, Executive Director. For instance, many people believe that up to fifty percent of the prison population is incarcerated for possessing drugs.
• In some states that may be true, however in Oregon less than one-half of one percent of Oregon’s 14,000 inmates is serving time for drug possession, and those were convicted for possession of substantial quantities of illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC).
Ah, the old “many people” straw man. Who are these “many people,” anyway? I hear about them on FOX News all the time. I believe these “many people believe” may be related to the “some people say…”
The idea of this framing is to get people to think the need for marijuana legalization is predicated on alleviating the over-incarceration of small-time pot smokers. Then you show that there are exceedingly few small-time pot smokers in prison and voila!, no need to legalize marijuana.
First off, the <0.5% stat is misleading in many ways. It fails to account for someone who was serving probation for some other crime and then gets caught with a dirty urinalysis for pot, who is then returned to prison. It conflates marijuana with the other, scary-sounding drugs when, in fact, most drug arrests and convictions are for marijuana. It makes “substantial quantities” sound like a lot, when in Oregon you can get felony time for anything over an ounce or for a single plant.
But the main point where that fails is this: the problem isn’t incarceration for pot, it’s punishment for pot, period.
When you are caught with a mere joint in Oregon, it is just a ticket and a fine. But it is also a mandatory six-month driver’s license suspension, even if you weren’t driving or even near your car when caught with the joint. Losing a driver’s license can mean the loss of a job for some of these people.
If you were caught with that joint within 1,000 feet of a school (read: almost anywhere in a city), it’s a misdemeanor with 30 days in jail. That misdemeanor is now in the public record, branding you a “drug criminal” for life in the age of Google, making it much harder for you to get a job when you lose your current one for being in jail for a month. Some people, unable to find work, will turn to crime, which may get them locked up in prison for something other than pot. That makes that <0.5% stat work by ignoring it was the jail for a joint that started the whole process of creating this criminal.
Then there’s that felony for over an ounce or a single plant or selling or even giving away more than an ounce of marijuana. Maybe a lot of those people get deferred judgment or mandatory rehab or lengthy probation or any combination of these that prevents them from falling into that <0.5% stat. But that still costs court time, public defender time, probation officer time, rehab counselor time, and the funding of all the bureaucracy and infrastructure necessary to handle it all. Not to mention filling a rehab bed with a productive pot smoker that would be better spent on a desperate meth addict who really does harm society ripping metal off bridges or breaking into your home.
This isn’t a question of how much money is squandered by the Drug War or how much money can be made by ending it, though both topics seem to be driving opposition and support. It’s a question of who operates the marijuana market: businessmen or criminals.
See, the marijuana market isn’t going anywhere. Singapore and Dubai have death penalties for drug traffickers, and they have to use them every now and then because people in Singapore and Dubai are still willing to buy, sell, and use drugs! We have functional drug markets in our SuperMax federal penitentiaries! And in America, if it is to remain somewhat the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it is impossible to eliminate the marijuana market or even seriously affect it with law enforcement. When Rihanna is openly puffing blunts and Morgan Freeman is calling it the stupidest law possible, you’ve lost any hope of eliminating the marijuana culture.