Possession of marijuana is a crime under federal law. But in several states and local jurisdictions, possessing marijuana can lead to a friendly wave from a police officer or time in jail.
Under federal law, possession of any amount of marijuana can result in up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for a first offense. For a second conviction, the penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. In California, by contrast, a first offense brings no jail time and up to a $100 fine.
In many cases, a state has declined to prosecute an individual only to have federal authorities step in. Shortly after California's medical marijuana law was passed in 1996, Todd McCormick, a cancer patient who used marijuana to reduce nausea and pain, was growing marijuana at his Bel Air home, and local authorities had taken no action. In July 1997, however, federal agents raided his home. Under a plea agreement, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison. He was released in December 2003.
Moreover, writes author Eric Schlosser, “A person may even be tried twice for the same drug crime: After being found innocent by a state jury, marijuana growers can be — and have been — subsequently convicted in federal court.”
Schlosser also notes, “There are no established criteria for when a U.S. attorney will enter a marijuana case. The federal government could prosecute any and every marijuana offender in America if it so desired, but in a typical year it charges less than 2 percent of those arrested. In some districts there is a policy that the U. S. attorney will enter cases involving more than a hundred plants or a hundred pounds. In others, a federal prosecutor may simply take a special interest in a case.”
Schlosser cites the case of Edward Czuprynski, a liberal activist in Michigan, who was convicted in federal court of possession of 1.6 grams of marijuana, approximately the amount used in a single marijuana cigarette. “Under Michigan law he most likely would have received a $100 fine,” writes Schlosser. “But in federal court, Czuprynski was sentenced to 14 months in prison. His license to practice law was suspended. His successful law firm closed down.”
To further complicate matters, marijuana laws vary widely from region to region. While getting caught with an ounce of marijuana in California brings a misdemeanor charge and no jail time, for example, conviction in Alabama brings up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Similarly, cultivating any amount of marijuana in California (except when it is recommended for a patient or caregiver) is a felony that can bring 16 months in prison, while cultivating 2.2 pounds to 100 pounds in Alabama means a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
In Texas, penalties start out on the tough side and get harsher. Possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is punishable by 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine. For more than two ounces, the penalty rises to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
In addition to the patchwork of state laws, federal law requires anyone convicted of a drug offense to lose his or her student aid, notes Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. “I've been trying to repeal that.” Frank points out that convictions for other crimes, such as armed robbery, do not necessarily result in a loss of aid.
And convictions for possession of marijuana can be counted as parole or probation violations, resulting in jail time. “There are no hard numbers on any of that,” says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, but when you talk to people in probation and parole, they say it is massive. That gives the lie to the argument there aren't a lot of people behind bars for marijuana offenses.”