Marijuana: Legal consequences

Last modified: Sunday, 31. May 2009 - 5:06 pm

Legal consequences of Marijuana

Marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act whose possession and distribution is forbidden by law in the United States. Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon have all but eliminated criminal penalties for possessing small amounts — up to roughly 1 oz (28 g). Many other states allow first-time offenders to be sentenced to treatment instead of jail, or to receive a conditional discharge requiring them to fulfill provisions established by the court (such as pleading guilty) to have the charges dismissed. Other states are less tolerant, but most have listed possession of small amounts as misdemeanors punishable by fines.
Since 1996, eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have allowed patients with certain diseases and a doctor’s prescription to grow and use their own marijuana.
It is important to note, however, that neither medical provisions nor lightened penalties for first-time drug offenders legalizes the use or possession of marijuana, and that comparatively light sentences usually apply only to first-time offenders. Those who get caught more than once or who are carrying more than very small amounts of the drug face significant Legal consequences. In addition, the federal government maintains that state laws do not supersede its regulations, and that prosecution for marijuana possession is still possible under the U.S. Code. The FBI, in fact, makes more drug arrests for marijuana than for any other kind of drug.
Only one country, the Netherlands, allows small amounts of marijuana to be sold openly in state-controlled “coffee shops.” Cannabis, like other drugs, remains illegal, but the Dutch make a clear distinction between “hard” drugs like heroin and “soft” drugs like marijuana, agreeing to tolerate sales of less than 5 g (0.18 oz) to adults over 18 in a controlled environment. Liberal Dutch drug policies, however, have made the country a mecca for drug addicts from other countries, many of them indigent. This influx has increased property crime rates in the Netherlands; consequently, the government has reduced the number of coffee shops allowed to operate. Neighboring countries also charge that marijuana’s easy availability in the Netherlands gives both hard and soft drug traffickers a base in Europe, and contributes to the importation of illegal substances into other countries. Despite these concerns, in January 2001, Belgium decriminalized personal possession and sale of unspecified small amounts of marijuana, but will continue to focus prosecution efforts on the production and sale of large quantities. Unlike the Dutch, the Belgians will not sanction commercial sales of marijuana in any quantities.
Only two countries, the Netherlands and Canada, allow patients with certain medical conditions and a physician’s approval to grow and use their own marijuana. In the United States, however, the drug remains illegal; possession and sale over certain amounts are prosecutable offenses.

Legal history

Until the twentieth century, cannabis was a legal product in every state. It was an accepted medication for a variety of conditions, and a frequent ingredient in patent medicines. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act forbade “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors,” including those containing cannabis. The law put most patent medicine manufacturers out of business.
By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which effectively criminalized marijuana possession anywhere in the United States, even for ostensibly medicinal use. In the 1950s, federal penalties increased further; a first-time marijuana conviction could mean as much as 10 years in jail and up to $20,000 in fines. Beginning in the 1960s, however, the perception of marijuana as a relatively harmless drug gained popular acceptance, particularly among the young. In 1970, Congress lifted many mandatory sentences for drug crimes. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act allowed possession of small amounts of marijuana, although the drug remained a controlled substance, and large-scale trafficking was heavily penalized. After years of relative tolerance, however, mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes were reinstated in 1986 by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which tied criminal penalties to the quantities of drugs involved. Later amendments to the act further tightened the judicial noose with a “three-strikes” clause and capital punishment for high-level criminals.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

Marijuana trafficking is vigorously prosecuted in the United States, with the FBI reporting that nearly half of its 1.5 million drug arrests in 2000 were for marijuana. More than 87% of these arrests were for possession. First-offense convictions for possession of less than 110 lbs (50 kg) of marijuana are punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for an individual. Those convicted of possessing more than 2,205 lbs (1,000 kg) of marijuana face up to life in prison and fines of up to $4,000,000.

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