$100.00 meant the difference between life and death for 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton last month. On his 4th
day of incarceration in a New Hampshire jail, he was found dead with medical examiners declining to provide any details to the public. What heinous crime married Pendleton to this unofficial death sentence? Possession of marijuana. And while the tragic events of Pendleton’s death are so repulsive, they’re sadly not very surprising. New Hampshire is the only New England state clinging vehemently to archaic marijuana laws despite a radically evolving public perception. While New England still struggles with full legalization, distracted by arguments over the region’s problem with opiate addiction, New Hampshire is the sole New England state to not offer some sort of decriminalization of marijuana. And last month, it cost Pendleton his life. And while some may want to sweep the event under the rug as a freak occurrence, people all across the nation are suffering through excruciating sentencing over tired cannabis laws.
Real Time for Arguable Crime
Data released by the FBI in 2014 showed that arrests related to marijuana
occurred every 45 seconds in the United States. Over 700,000 people felt the bite with 90% of those arrests being attributed to simple possession charges. In this transition, the nation is suffering a personality crisis of sorts. With the constant buzzing of the War on Drugs finally disrupted, we’re left to question whether our current marijuana laws are actually working in our favor. The majority of the nation has answered with a resounding “no” and have voiced that in varying degrees of tolerance stretching from decriminalization to all out recreational legalization.
America’s Love of the Pop Culture Stoner
But it’s difficult to pair these numbers and life sentences still being served with our whimsical take on the American stoner in pop culture, mythologized in the likes of Dazed and Confused
, That ‘70s Show
, and Cheech & Chong. Even if Pineapple Express
isn’t your thing, it’s still jarring to imagine those characters being sentenced to life imprisonment for enjoying a bit of ganja. Now imagine one of these characters getting busted on possession charges, failing to make bail, and being wheeled out under a sheet 4 days later. How can America applaud the stoner on TV while turning a blind eye to those real life marijuana users serving sentences reserved for violent criminals of the highest order?
Strict Marijuana Laws Wasting Life
Alabama’s marijuana laws are similar in their strictness to New Hampshire’s and could be regarded as no-nonsense but realistically seem outdated and severe, to put it lightly. In 2011, Lee Carroll Brooker was arrested and convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the cultivation of marijuana plants. Brooker grew the weed for his own use as the 75-year-old suffered from chronic pain related to his time in the military. He had grown a couple pounds of cannabis but there was no proof or even belief that he had intent to distribute. The lengthy sentence related to an Alabama law that issues mandatory life sentencing for possession offenses if a previous felony offense is on record. Brooker had already served a 10 year sentence for armed robbery decades ago with no offense since his release, unless you count trying to self-medicate…which Alabama unfortunately does.
The Need for Federal Legalization
In New Hampshire, possession of even a minor amount gets you arrested. Cross the border into Vermont and the same offense gets you a fine. In Alabama, possession with a prior felony automatically gets you life without parole. But a hop over to Mississippi and you’ll find it’s also decriminalized. These disparate perspectives on marijuana laws frame a hell of a problem and illustrate a need for a definitive federal statement on marijuana legalization. The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on Brooker’s case and potentially hear his challenge that his sentencing is “cruel and unusual”. But the federal government has largely stayed out of legalization leaving the states to sort it out for themselves.
Fortunately, the majority of states are gradually warming to the idea of marijuana legalization and in so doing, relaxing their marijuana laws. Today finds that even New Hampshire may be open to change as their Senate debates over whether to pass a bill that would reduce consequences of marijuana possession. Of course, even if the bill were to pass their staunch Senate, it comes too late for Pendleton. If you’re lucky enough to live in a state that has at least legalized medical marijuana, try not to lose sight of the fact that there are still several parts of this country where there’s a high price for getting high.