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4.08.2014

If marijuana laws change, do convicts get a break?

by Joan Quigley / For The Jersey Journal The Star-Ledger    


Across the country state legislators are considering decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal recreational use. Some users are delighted, of course, and some anti-weed activists are horrified. Some people object on religious grounds or health concerns. Some think of all the things that could be done if the sale of cannabis was taxed.


And about 40,000 prison inmates are asking, “What about me?”

Those are the men and women convicted of crimes involving marijuana and sentenced to terms ranging from a few months to life. They’re not part of the conversation yet, but eventually they’ll have to be.


Use of marijuana for medical use was approved with strict regulations in several states, including New Jersey, a few years ago. While our state was dragging its feet about setting up legal dispensaries, Washington state and Colorado moved on to decriminalizing use of cannabis for recreational use. Supporters predicted state revenues would soar when marijuana sales were taxed.


Nicholas Scutari, a New Jersey state senator from Union County, recently introduced legislation that would allow adults here to buy up to an ounce of marijuana and grow their own plants for individual use as the state collects taxes on it like any other product. Revenues would be directed to road repairs, a drug enforcement fund and women’s health.


Passage won’t happen soon. Governor Christie is dead set against it and many other legislators, including a few who, um, experimented in high school or college, are uncomfortable with the idea. And growing, selling and using cannabis is still not legal under federal law.


Rolling Stone estimates as many as 750,000 people a year are convicted in the United States of crimes involving marijuana. They also report enforcement of anti-marijuana laws has slacked off somewhat in recent years, but possession with intent to distribute is still prosecuted in every state.


In New Jersey, possession of 50 grams or less is considered a misdemeanor, with convicted persons liable to spend up to six months in jail and paying as much as $1,000 in fines. Most important, conviction brings a permanent criminal record. There are stiffer penalties for possession of larger amounts, or intent to distribute, use within a school zone, use during commission of another crime, and so on.


Penalties for felony use of marijuana vary by state, with multiple convictions subjecting convicts to lifelong sentences in prison and others for shorter terms but a future of being barred from some employment as repeat drug offenders.


I don’t know how many people are in New Jersey prisons for marijuana offenses, but I can’t help wondering what their status would be if marijuana laws were changed. In America there is no guarantee of what lawyers call “retroactive ameliorative relief in sentencing.” In other words, if it was a crime when you did it, it’s always going to be a crime on your record, although you can’t be punished for something that was not a crime at the time you did it.


So if something ceases to be a crime, should a convict get a break? There will never be a time when rape, robbery or murder isn’t a crime, but shifts in public opinion cause legal shifts. Soon it’ll be illegal to smoke an ordinary cigarette on a public beach, and it’s already illegal to whack your pesky youngster on the behind – two things an older generation took for granted. Now I’m certainly not suggesting we jail folks for doing those things, but I have to wonder whether we should keep on punishing people for actions that were illegal once but everyone may just take for granted tomorrow.