With pot-related ballot measures prepared for November in nine states, more Americans will get to vote on legalizing marijuana for medical and/or recreational use in 2016 than in any other year in American history.
The Drug Enforcement Administration is considering reclassifying marijuana so it isn’t a Schedule I drug anymore, a change that would make legalization and — more important for medical purposes — research easier.
With news like that, it’s easy to think of the failed drug war as a battle that has been won for the cause of individual liberty. Sure, we might think, it will take a while for all the bad pot laws to get thrown out, and maybe even longer for people to realize that prohibition doesn’t work with other drugs either. But the trends are clearly running toward freedom.
That’s true in many ways, but now is no time for resting on our laurels. Recently, two stories reminded me just how important it is to keep fighting against senseless drug policy.
The first is from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where 81-year-old Paul Jackson was growing marijuana for medical use in his backyard garden. Jackson started growing the plant because both he and Mary, his wife of 53 years, had cancer. For Mary especially, cannabis tea managed the pain of her cancer and chemotherapy, enabling her to maintain her appetite and comfort in her final days.
Since Mary died, Jackson kept growing marijuana, giving the leaves to friends, who likewise used it to manage chronic pain.
“I keep this because I’ve had cancer in both ears, and I never know when I may need it,” he said. He never smokes the plants, because “I don’t like smoke and I don’t like dust.” He adds: “We just make tea out of it. But if I need to make the tea, I’ve got it. I don’t sell it. I will continue to have a certain amount in case somebody close to me needs it.”
Massachusetts National Guard personnel, operating under a grant from the DEA, and in conjunction with mainland State Police, confiscated 392 plants that were sighted from above. Four of those plants belonged to Edgartown resident Paul Jackson, an 81-year-old former cancer patient who grows the plant for medicinal tea.
In a telephone conversation, Mr. Jackson said several plainclothes law enforcement officers in fluorescent orange vests came bounding out of the woods that abut his land and ripped out his plants, which he grew for medicinal tea. Mr. Jackson said none of the officers showed him identification or served him with a warrant.
“They just come charging through and start cutting it down,” he said.
Jackson thought his four plants were legal under Massachusetts’ convoluted decriminalization laws. “They tell you different things; they say you can grow as much as you want if it’s locked up, they say 10 ounces,” he said. “I figured what I was growing was such a small amount, what the hell was the big deal?”
But because he didn’t have a special license from the Department of Public Health, the state disagreed and decided to storm his property and kill his plants.
Jackson got off easy compared to Paul Fields in Tennessee, who is currently serving more than 15 years in prison because he was caught in possession of marijuana three times. He wasn’t caught selling. He didn’t hurt anyone. But a federal mandatory minimum law deems Fields a “career offender,” which means lengthy jail time:
That’s how Paul Fields, a gentle and generous Deadhead with a new wife and an 8-month-old daughter, ended up with a 188-month sentence for growing marijuana. That is substantially longer than the average federal sentence for sexual abuse (134 months in fiscal year 2015), robbery (78 months), arson (62 months), or manslaughter (54 months). Despite the possibility that he would be sentenced as a career offender, Fields pleaded guilty to avoid charges against his wife. “I broke the law and deserve to be punished,” he says. But especially now that Fields’ “crime” is treated as legitimate commercial activity in many states, his punishment seems grossly excessive.
Fields is missing years of his daughter’s life because he did something in Tennessee that would have been perfectly legal in Washington State:
Arrested in 2009, Fields went to prison in 2010. Now in his early 50s, he has served six and a half years and has not seen his 7-year-old daughter outside a prison visitors’ room since she was a baby. “My relationship with my daughter is the most important thing in my life,” he says. “Still, it’s hard being separated…I keep a daily journal for her—every day I write a short little note to her, talking about my day, and what I know about hers. When a notebook is full, I mail it home and my wife saves them all together to give to her someday. I want her to always know how much I love and miss her, and that I think of her EVERY day.”
Progress at the state level does not negate draconian laws still intact at the federal level, as Fields’ story shows. And even reforms we hail as progress in the states may cause plenty of harm of their own if they are poorly designed, as happened in Jackson’s case.
The drug war is probably on its way out. But it is not gone yet, and it is still ruining lives.