Over the last five years or so, the pro-cannabis movement has enjoyed a great deal of success. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use, and 29 states allow for the legal use of medical marijuana. Many other states and cities have decriminalized cannabis possession to some degree, while others have simply instructed their local police to de-emphasize their pursuit of low-level pot-related cases.
The U.S. Congress has even acted to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a fierce and factually-impaired opponent of cannabis legalization and the top law enforcement officer in the country – from prosecuting cases against medical marijuana users or dispensaries in states in which such use is legal.
However, this progress should not cause us to forget that there are still people being sentenced to extraordinarily long prison terms for nothing more than marijuana possession. We’re not talking 6-month suspended sentences for people caught carrying an ounce or two; we’re talking about people being thrown in the slammer for decades, because they were in possession of a small amount of personal pot.
Criminal Records and Cannabis
In what is surely one of the most troubling sentences handed down in recent years, a Caddo Parish judge sentenced Gary D. Howard to 18 years in prison after being caught in possession of 18 grams of marijuana.
Howard was found guilty by a jury of his peers, but who knows if they’d have come to the same conclusion had they known how long the defendant would be imprisoned if convicted. The judge in this case made use of a habitual-offender sentence escalator, which allowed him to impose the 18-year-long sentence. Howard, it turns out, had previously been convicted of possessing a firearm as a registered felon, which is in itself a felony.
So, while Howard did have a criminal record, and couldn’t reasonably argue the “young person who made an isolated mistake” defense, he committed no violent crime in this instance. He merely possessed a little more than half-an-ounce of weed. But in Louisiana, the combination of this charge and his previous misdeeds added up to a nearly two-decade-long prison sentence.
Howard’s attorney appealed the sentence, which eventually made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana. Unfortunately for Howard, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s 18-year-long sentence.
Backlash from the Bench
Not all jurists on the court agreed with the decision to uphold the lower court’s sentence. In fact, the Chief Justice Bernette Johnson strongly dissented, and lashed out at her colleagues, calling the decision “outrageous” and “ridiculous.”
Johnson went on to question the fact that the possession of 18 grams of marijuana justified an 18-year-long sentence, calling it “arbitrary.” She further argued that this sentence was going to cost the state’s taxpayers more than $400,000 and provide “little societal value.”
Louisiana currently incarcerates a greater percentage of their citizens than any other state in the country. This has led some lawmakers to consider revamping the state’s sentencing guidelines.