Let No Punishment Fit The Cannabis Crime

By Benjie Cooper

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Throughout history, humans have used the versatile cannabis plant for a wide range different applications. From fiber to medicine and nutrition, people have long known of the usefulness of the cannabis plant and why the crop is a beneficial one to cultivate. But for some reason, when the world entered into the 19th century, the powers that be began executing a concerted global effort to attempt to strip humanity of its right to use the plant.

Britain’s colonies began trying to criminalize cannabis as early as 1838, but England didn’t make it illegal until 1928 when lawmakers added it to the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. Still, doctors were allowed to prescribe it medicinally until the Misuse of Drugs Act became law in 1971. Marijuana is classified as a Class B drug in the UK under the law, but doctors are allowed to privately prescribe Sativex, a formulated cannabis extract spray, to cytotoxic chemotherapy patients experiencing nausea and vomiting.

On October 2, 1937, The United States passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. That same day, FBI agents along with Denver City police arrested the country’s first two cannabis prisoners, Moses Baca for buying, and Samuel Caldwell for selling two cannabis cigarettes without paying the marijuana tax. The courts gave Baca 18 months, and Caldwell served four years in Leavenworth Penitentiary and paid a $1,000 fine. The Tax Act was later ruled unconstitutional in the 1970s and replaced with the Controlled Substances Act which included the current federal drug scheduling system and used the spelling, “marijuana.” In the U.S., narcotics are put into Schedule I, II, or III categories, ranked by government-defined levels of danger and potential for addiction. Cannabis resides on the top of the list as a Schedule I narcotic which means, according to government definitions, it has no medicinal value and carries a high chance of addiction.

Along with the criminalization of cannabis around the world came varying levels of punishment for different marijuana infractions, but the definitions of what is mild and what is severe appear to vary wildly. While over half of the United States, as well as Washington DC, have medical marijuana laws on the books, and the list of recreational States is growing, there are still harsh penalties that exist, even in legal states. Arizona voters legalized medical cannabis in 2010 when they passed Proposition 203, but without a medical card, possession of fewer than two pounds for personal use is a Class 6 felony and is punishable by a minimum sentence of four months to two years and a minimum $1,000 fine.

In most places where it is still illegal, penalties for cannabis can range from a day or two behind bars to life in prison. But the commonly-practiced punishments in these places can almost seem mild in comparison when placed next to current policies in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. In these nations, drugs can carry the threat of not only fines and imprisonment, but also death. While the death penalty for drug offenses is still practiced in these countries, some more than others, they primarily reserved it for individuals on the trafficking side rather than the end users. The Philippines abolished the death penalty for cannabis in 2006, but extrajudicial killings for drug use have taken its place since.

Execution might not seem like something that would happen here, but United States federal law does have a section that allows for the death penalty to be carried out for some marijuana convictions. It has never happened though. According to the law, if the accused is in possession of an extraordinarily large amount of cannabis (60,000kg/132,277lbs), and is the primary leader of an ongoing smuggling operation that nets more than $20 million during any 12-month period, they are eligible for the death sentence. While the death penalty is in the books as a possible punishment for big-time cannabis offenders, the US Supreme Court maintains the position that murder and treason are the only two offenses that warrant its use.

The cannabis plant has been around a lot longer than any of the Earth’s nations, and certainly longer than those who perpetuate policies and ideas that penalize people for its cultivation and use. It has taken a relatively short amount of time to convince a lot of individuals that marijuana is something so detestable. But that’s been changing. The world is in a new era of information, communication, and skepticism, so when people discover a falsehood, it’s much easier to spread the truth.

In contrast to previous efforts to criminalize cannabis and keep it out of the hands of the people, the opposite is now happening globally thanks to the tireless work of cannabis activists and advocates everywhere. The world was once a place where people could grow cannabis without fear of punishment, but if the world keeps on its current path, that may become a reality once again.