The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Here at the Free Thought Project we feel that life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling 1.5 ounces of a plant is not only excessive but extremely cruel. Sadly, however, it is not unusual.
In spite of the fact that weed is legal in some form in over half the country, the drug warrior predator class still viciously enforces the war on marijuana, ruining and ending lives from coast to coast in the process. Allen Russell, a 38-year-old man from Mississippi is a recent example of the state ruining lives in their enforcement of marijuana prohibition.
Russell was caught with a little over 1 ounce of marijuana in the state of Mississippi. And, despite the fact that the state just legalized medical marijuana in November, “possession of between 30 and 250 grams is a felony punishable by a maximum of 3 years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $3,000.”
While three years for having a tiny bit of a plant is certainly excessive, what happened to Russell moves beyond excessive into the realm of cruel and unusual. In 2019, Russell was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because he had a little bit of a plant which happens to be available over the counter in a dozens states.
Because Russell had two prior run-ins with the law, once in 2004 and once in 2014, the marijuana conviction put him away for life.
As the Associate Press points out:
In Mississippi, a person can be sentenced to life without parole after serving at least one year in prison on two separate felonies, one of which must be a violent offense. Russell was convicted on two home burglaries in 2004 and for unlawful possession of a firearm in 2015.
By law, burglary is a violent offense in Mississippi, whether or not there is proof that violence occurred.
That was not the case when Russell was sentenced for home burglary in 2004. Then, burglary was only considered a violent crime if there was proof of violence. The law changed in 2014.
There was no proof that violence occurred, and the two burglaries took place at the same house just two days apart. But because the state of Mississippi takes away guns from convicted felons, Russell did not have to commit an actual crime when he got caught with the gun in 2014. Simply possessing it was enough to charge him with a felony, despite the fact that it is legal for everyone else in the state without a felony to own a firearm.
After getting out of prison in 2017, Russell was caught with a small amount of marijuana and the state would then callously steamroll him into life behind bars.
After he was sentenced in 2019, Russell appealed the sentence on the grounds that a life sentence constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate” to his crime of marijuana possession.
The Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld Russell’s sentence on Monday and said there is nothing cruel an unusual about throwing a man in a cage for the rest of his life for possessing a plant that has never killed anyone.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with the appeal in its majority opinion, stating that Russell’s life sentence is in accordance with Mississippi law. Russell is not being sentenced solely for having marijuana, but for being a habitual offender, the judges said, according to the AP.
Though other judges dissented, it was not enough to save Russell.
“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote in his dissent. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”
It’s not just life sentences for pot that are excessive. Any time anyone is deprived of their freedom or extorted by government for possessing or partaking in this plant, it is cruel and excessive, yet sadly it remains a function of this entire system.
Despite an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana, arrests for the beneficial plant continue to increase. As Forbes reports:
According to new data released by the FBI in October, there were 663,367 marijuana arrests in the country in 2018.
That’s one every 48 seconds, and represents an uptick from the 659,700 cannabis busts American police made in 2017, and from 2016’s total of 653,249.
The jump comes despite the fact that there are now 11 states where marijuana is legal for adults over 21.
“Americans should be outraged that police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. We agree.