Should someone go to jail for having a joint in their purse? Marijuana, both medicinal and recreational, has been an intense topic of debate for decades. In some parts of the country, recreational usage is legal and is used to supplement the economy through taxation.
In others, possession can guarantee a trip to prison or a hefty fine. Thousands of people yearly are ruined for future job prospects and a stable income due to charges for possession of even minimal amounts of weed. An alarming amount of those people are people of color, who are arrested and charged for drug-related crime at a disproportionately high amount compared to their white counterparts. Not only is the system of mass incarceration in the United States problematic by nature of its inherent racism, but the system is also costly.
Every prisoner costs the federal and state government’s money, which, by extension, costs each and every single tax-paying citizen money. Many Americans fear the legalization of marijuana after being exposed to horror stories of marijuana leading to violent crime, addiction, and the end of their good suburban neighborhoods as they know it. The truth, however, is that legalizing marijuana doesn’t change much at all, and might actually make things better by encouraging people to seek help for drug abuse problems and providing federal regulations for the quality of marijuana, virtually ending the practice of “lacing”. The steep incarceration rates in the prison capital of the country, Louisiana, and across the United States could be remedied by decriminalizing or legalizing recreational marijuana as has been done successfully in states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Such measures would not only help to prevent mass incarceration but would also decrease the disproportionate amount of people of color that are arrested due to drug related crimes versus their white counterparts.
The first step in any recovery is admitting that there is a problem: the United States has more people in prison than any other developed nation. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States has only “5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners” (Mass Incarceration). Over the span of about forty years, the prison population in the U.S. has gone from a couple hundred thousand to several million (Equal Justice Initiative). The term “mass incarceration” was coined specifically to talk about the trend of the increasing number of prisoners and jail time in America. While America is the prison capital of the developed world, Louisiana is the prison capital of America.
Businesses and sheriffs alike make money off of the prison system, and have in turn created a business out of incarceration. Each prisoner given a sentence and put into a cell uses resources in the penitentiary, such as cigarettes from the commissary or soap for their showers. Every year, businesses compete at massive prison trade shows for deals with private and federal prisons-they want to be the ones providing products at steep prices to penitentiaries all across the country. In most prisons, “basic commissary items like cereal and canned soup can cost five times the retail price” (Markowitz). The result of businesses making money by providing products to jails is that they have incentives to keep putting people into them, and for longer and longer sentences each time.
Lobbyists working for large corporations work to sway congress in favor of longer and more severe rulings in the criminal justice system as a way to continue making profits off of jails (Markowitz). These companies effectively turn the end of someone’s life as they know it into profit. In Louisiana, this problem is especially prevalent. Most prisoners in the State of Louisiana spend their time in jails run by private groups for a profit. This creates even more of a lucrative system of incarceration than in the rest of the country, and subsequently has created an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars (“How Louisiana”).
In Louisiana, one in eighty-six citizens are serving jail time. Even more incredible than the sheer amount of Louisianians in prison is what they are jailed for. People on trial for murder will automatically receive a life sentence without the possibility for parole, and that sentence can be doled out with only ten out of twelve guilty votes from the jury.
There are a total of over 40,000 prisoners in the state of Louisiana, and their fates are profit in the pockets of local sheriffs and businesses who are subject to losing giant sums of money if there is ever a decrease in the amount of people imprisoned there. The biggest loser in this situation, however, are the black men for whom the supposedly unbiased justice system failed: although one out of eighty-six Louisianians are imprisoned, a whopping one out of fourteen black men are subject to the same fate (Chang).It is no secret that racism is still alive and well in America; to say that racism is dead is to be painfully ignorant to the plight of people of color in a system that seeks to oppress them at every possible juncture.
Systematic oppression of black Americans and people of color is no more so prevalent than in the criminal justice system. Research conducted on drug use and race has found that there is almost no significant difference between races when it comes to the rate of drug usage. However, even though there is little to no disparity between races in terms of usage, black Americans are arrested for drug-related crimes at six times the rate of white Americans. When it comes to substances such as powdered cocaine, black Americans make up 80% of the convicted prison population, but statistics indicate that two thirds of powdered cocaine users are white or hispanic (Dickinson).
In its own way, mass incarceration has created an all-American caste system that mimics the Jim Crow laws of the 19th century. But the issue of mass incarceration is not specific to only the time spent in jail, but “also to the larger web of laws, rules policies and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (Alexander 12-13).Longer and longer prison sentences may keep “criminals” off of the streets, but at what cost? There is no evidence to support the supposed benefits of increasing the length of prison sentences as a method of providing an environment for rehabilitation. In fact, there is evidence that the length of a prison stay has absolutely no significant effect on a person’s likelihood to commit a crime once they leave prison: they either will or they won’t, and no time behind bars will change that (Clear and Austin). Prison is supposed to be not only a punishment, but a rehabilitation and a method for eventual reintroduction into society. However, upon leaving prison, many find that the world has changed without them. Not only are they behind with their social groups and families, but most ex-convicts are unable to find a job after prison. Many end up returning to jail not because they accidentally got caught, but because jail is more secure than the outside world, especially when employers will automatically turn them down due to a previous conviction.
Some states even allow companies to bar ex-convicts from submitting an application to a job at all. These factors set prisoners up to fail from the beginning and help to continue mass incarceration by creating a system in which they cannot succeed (Holodny).Not only is jail time costly in a social aspect, but it is also expensive to the government and, by extension, to the taxpayers. In 2010, the average yearly cost to maintain a single prisoner in jail was over thirty-one thousand dollars. There are over 2.3 million people in prison right now in the United States: we spend billions every year just to maintain overpopulated prisons containing prisoners with longer sentences than are warranted, all which benefits the businesses that sell them products at extreme prices (The Price).So, what is there to do about the system of mass incarceration in the United States, specifically Louisiana? The answer is simple: decriminalize or legalize recreational marijuana. States like Oregon, Washington and Colorado have made their name in progressive marijuana reform by legalizing it within their borders.
In those three states, an average American can go to a dispensary and buy small amounts of cannabis for recreational use. The result? Less people, and especially less people of color, in jail. Before any state makes the motion to change the criminal status of marijuana, they must first determine which level of legalization is their goal. There are three levels to legalization: medicinal, decriminalized, and legal. The first level clears marijuana only for medicinal use with a prescription from a licensed medical doctor. Medicinal marijuana is legal in thirty states, including the District of Columbia, and is used largely to treat pain and seizures. Different parts of the plant, from the full leaf to just the oil, are effective in ways other medications simply aren’t for a lot of seizure patients. Chronically ill patients oftentimes get a prescription for medicinal marijuana to ease the pain of their chronic condition.
The next step up is decriminalization. This level does not make marijuana possession legal, but instead makes it a non-criminal offense. Those found selling or holding the substance can expect a fine for the first few offenses, although repeated offenses can also merit a prison sentence. The final level of legalization is just that: legalization. This final level is the most progressive of the three, making marijuana sales legal and taxable.
Dispensaries across states with legalization supply countless people with small amounts of the drug to be used at their discretion (Hill).The higher a state climbs up the levels of legalization, the less marijuana possession will result in jail time. By the same token, the higher level a state is, the less marijuana arrests can be used to fuel the criminal system of oppression for black Americans.One of the many myths that has been used to scare Americans out of wanting to legalize marijuana is that legalization will somehow increase violent crime rates or cases of driving under the influence.
However, extensive research by criminologists have proved the opposite: legalizing recreational marijuana actually has the opportunity to decrease violent crime. Weed is an illegal substance, which merits it a place on the black market and in the hands of cartels. Getting marijuana illegally is incredibly dangerous, and oftentimes leads to the same outcomes as any other black market activity. When marijuana is illegal, the stakes simply become higher and more dangerous to obtain it. Colorado, Oregon and Washington have all seen their violent crime rates drop significantly since legalization. Although the legalization cannot be proved to have caused the drop in crime, the drop serves to prove that legalization does not increase violent crime as many believe it does (Heuberger).Traffic fatalities and instances of driving under the influence increasing are both large concerns of much of the public when it comes to the legalization of marijuana.
However, much like violent crime rates increasing with legalization, the concern over increased traffic fatalities is also largely unfounded. According to both the Washington Post and the Denver Post, there has been no significant change either way when it comes to traffic. Traffic fatality rates have remained constant, as have rates of driving under the influence of marijuana (Ingraham).Legalization across the nation has also contributed to safer using habits. One of the main dangers of buying drugs like marijuana through illegal avenues is not the effects of the drug itself, but of the drugs that many dealers lace it with.
Government supplied and regulated weed not only inflicts taxes upon the substance, but also government regulations for purity and quality. Marijuana has been laced with things like ketamine, glass, embalming fluid, lead, PCP, heroin and other harmful substances. By subjecting it to government dispersal and regulation, there is virtually no risk of harmful substances causing overdoses or accidental deaths as has happened with laced marijuana in the past (“What Can Marijuana”).
Legalizing marijuana as has been done in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and other states countrywide has cut the amount of people in prison down significantly. Over half of all drug arrests are charges related to marijuana. If marijuana is taken out of the realm of being illegal, those arrests would never be able to occur again, taking away a huge portion of prison populations. The result of this is less money in taxes to support large prison populations and less black Americans being given time in prison for meaningless crimes. Although this may not end the problem of racism in the American criminal justice system, it will save the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands every year. Black Americans cannot be unjustly charged with crimes that are no longer criminal.Louisiana, like other states in the US, has made prison and jail time into a business.
The state, along with much of the criminal justice system, profit off of taking away people’s lives and futures. Hundreds of thousands are imprisoned every year for minor drug offenses and are released into a world that will reject and ostracize them for the rest of their lives, regardless of whether or not their conviction was violent. So, what would legalization mean for Louisiana, the prison capital of the world? It would mean, for starters, that their prisons would become emptier. No longer would one out of eighty-six citizens be imprisoned, and no longer would corporations be able to profit off of those arrests for marijuana-related crimes.
The racism that created the system of oppression within the criminal justice system may remain, but the men and women that it would have brought down would not. Legalization in Louisiana would also help to replace the revenue created by the prison system through taxation of the drug itself. It would also provide jobs within the state by creating new government-run dispensaries that would provide safe and clean access to the drug. Although taxation in states with legalized distribution have not created a massive tax revenue by legalizing weed, every bit helps when it comes to government projects, maintaining government structures, and paying government employees (Gander).Mass Incarceration is a problem unique to the United States. It comes as a result of slavery, of segregation, and of systematic racism that has oppressed and brought down black Americans since they first set foot upon the shores of the colonies. Mass incarceration is a continuation of that same oppression and is a legal form of Jim Crow- it is a caste system, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Not only does it oppress black Americans by affecting them more severely than their white counterparts, but it also serves to benefit businesses and corporations at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of regular Americans.
Prison and punishment should not be a business, as monetary incentives are strong enough to sway politicians to create legislation that will keep innocent people behind bars for the sake of their paycheck. Legalizing marijuana will lessen the burden of mass incarceration on the black community and the taxpayers, no place more so than in Louisiana, the prison capital of the world.