How Marijuana Legalization Would Reform the Prison System in America

Although marijuana is no longer considered a crime in nearly half of the United States, countless American citizens are still serving out a prison sentence for simple possession of this mildly mind-altering substance.

When Richard Nixon used the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to label the plant as a Schedule I drug – the most dangerous classification – he began a war on drugs that would misguidedly center its attention on cannabis. It’s only in recent years that the general public has begun to openly accept that marijuana isn’t nearly as harmful or dangerous as it was made out to be.

This has led to a wave of legalization across the country both for medicinal and recreational cannabis use. In spite of this, the substance remains federally illegal, leaving it in the hands of individual states to decide whether or not marijuana should be legal, and if so, in what capacity.

It’s this disparity in legality from state to state that has resulted in so many people still stuck in prison for marijuana possession. Clearly, the best possible action for the U.S. prison system is to federally legalize cannabis and end this errant war on drugs once and for all.

People Who Shouldn’t Be in Prison

It might seem strange that as marijuana becomes legalized in state after state in the U.S., numerous individuals are still behind bars for the offense of having this plant in their possession. The fact that they are still forced to carry out these sentences to completion seems like a blatant oversight in the criminal justice system.

To say that the prison system in the United States is overburdened would be a gross understatement. Facilities of all types and sizes are crowded with inmates, and the rate of these increasing prison populations vastly outstrips the increase in the general population and crime rate. This is a clear indicator of what is already well-known: that in the U.S., there is a massive overuse of imprisonment in the criminal justice system.

But besides freeing up cells and thus enabling better conditions for those who remain incarcerated, federally legalizing marijuana would release from prison those who never should’ve been there, to begin with. It’s a tragic thing when someone’s life and future are unjustly taken away from them – and that’s exactly what these convictions continue to do.

Criminal Record: A Lifelong Sentence

The issue of being charged with marijuana possession doesn’t simply end the moment you walk out of the prison building. Those who do face legal consequences for being caught with this controlled substance come out with a stain on their record that follows them everywhere.

Having a criminal record due to this type of conviction can affect everything from finding a job to finding a place to live. Once a potential employer or landlord performs a basic background check, they’ll come face-to-face with your history of possession. Unfortunately, this all too often leads to people not wanting to do business with you.

A Dehumanizing Practice Affecting Populations Disproportionately

As one may have unfortunately come to expect with the prison system in the U.S., these charges and policies have impacted people of color above all other populations. The continued criminalization of simple marijuana possession serves to further compound the racial inequality in this country.

When a person is searched or patted down, it’s a downright dehumanizing experience. Many who go through these aggressive police tactics come out of the encounter traumatized, with their sense of self violated. In many cases, this leads to mental health struggles that may be lifelong. Other times, it creates a general mistrust in authority that alienates these populations from the police.

At this point, federally legalizing marijuana should be a no-brainer. It’s the reform that America’s prison system desperately needs.