While states across the US are legalizing marijuana use for both medicinal and recreational purposes, our jails are full of people who have been incarcerated over minor offences involving the possession, and sale of marijuana. Lynda Lee Byrnes has already spent 23 of the 27 years she was sentenced in prison over just such an ‘offense.’
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has published a lengthy invective railing against the notion that our prison systems in the US are full of one-time marijuana users, but one in eight people sitting in a cell right now are there because of a marijuana offense. This amounts to around 12,000 people according to US Bureau of Justice Statistics, or twice the population of many small towns across America.
Linda helped to haul a shipment of marijuana for her son when he was younger, and the government told him he would be protected if he testified against his mother, Byrnes, who still sits in jail after spending a huge chunk of her life there, but she doesn’t blame her son for ‘turning her in,’ even though he escaped a prison sentence himself. She had a prior conviction involving the possession of marijuana in 1993, and this was used against her. Authorities gave her a term that was considered unusually lengthy by many who are now responsible for sentencing.
Byrnes now suffers from tongue cancer, and may not get out of prison in time to enjoy her family, which includes a terminally ill grandchild, before its too late. She has asked for a ‘point reduction’ which would reduce the time spent on her sentence by almost two years, but has yet to be granted that request.
There are others like Byrnes. Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Alabama. Another Louisiana man, Bernard Noble, was recently given a 13-year sentence for just two joints worth of pot.
Notwithstanding the haphazard way with which government officials now dole out drug offenses, top Mexican drug lords have pointed to the US Central Intelligence Agency as traffickers of cocaine and heroine, drugs which are arguably much more dangerous than weed, into our country – without spending a single minute in jail, people like Linda are locked away for the very same action which many people now freely enjoy.
Many countries are also decriminalizing pot. Prague, in the Czech Republic is earning the title of “the New Amsterdam” because Czech citizens are allowed to grow up to five plants, or be in possession of certain amounts of cannabis without fear of being criminally prosecuted.
Uruguay has completely legalized cannabis, and their president has issued a a large number of pardons for drug related offenses.
Jamaica is relaxing its laws on possession, and if it weren’t for political pressure from the U.S., the Mexican government would have legalized pot possession by now also. Spain has private cannabis clubs, and Canada, also looking to the US for decriminalization cues, is loosening its laws concerning cannabis.
Perhaps Byrnes, Brooker, Noble, and other non-violent drug offenders deserve a reprieve. As Rolling Stones states, “After 45 years, more than $1 trillion wasted, and the creation of the world’s largest prison system, America still lacks the political will to change its failed drug policy.” After all, almost half of America is hopped up on opiods sold by the pharmaceutical industry for billions. Our nation’s drug policy is a joke, but certainly people who rot away in jail don’t think it’s very funny.