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American lives derailed by laws against cannabis possession.
basic citizens’ rights to things such as voting and jury service.
For people who depend upon public assistance the consequences can be more detrimental. A marijuana conviction can trigger a block on receiving food stamps and restrict access to public housing. In some states, these sanctions can drag on for life. The contact with the criminal justice system itself can stigmatize a person, change the course of their lives and ruin relationships, a cost that is hard to measure.
“We are criminalizing a significant section of our society,” said Mason Tvert, who works with the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, Colo. “Marijuana use should be addressed by treatment and education, not law enforcement,” he added. The organization works to build public support against punitive marijuana policies and also to change state laws, aiming to liberalize both medical and non-medical use of marijuana.
Tvert maintained that marijuana prohibition was carried out at great cost to taxpayers, with billions of dollars being spent on enforcement and campaigns to vilify marijuana use, versus focusing on more serious crimes.
Current legislation varies widely across states. Beginning with California’s legalization of medical marijuana in 1996, a total of 18 states and the District of Columbia allowed prescription use. Now with Colorado and Washington legalizing personal possession and use of small amounts of marijuana even recreationally, the debate to legalize the drug in the country has picked up.
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The impact of current policies starts at a young age and students who have drug convictions are denied loans, grants and even work-study jobs. Currently in 28 states, a student who is convicted of possessing any amount of marijuana will be denied federal financial aid for a year, and may also be denied state educational aid. More than 180,000 college students have been denied or delayed federal financial aid as a result of a drug conviction, according to a report by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform published in 2006.
“At the student level, nothing happens if you get a DWI [Driving While Intoxicated] for alcohol in terms of federal funding, but if you are found with marijuana, you cannot get the grant money to keep going,” said David Holland, executive and legal director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in New York.
Nathan Foutch of Peru, Ind., was an ardent Lance Armstrong fan and a cyclist. As a high school senior in 1995, he was set to get a scholarship for college, his ticket out of the small town. One night in June of 1995 he was driving and pulled over to take a nap near an old church. Later, a sheriff’s deputy woke him and asked to search his car. Foutch granted permission and after half an hour of searching the officer started going through the empty cigarette packs on his back seat, in one of which he found a small amount of marijuana.
He was arrested for possession, and ended up spending 30 days in jail, sharing a 9 by 12 foot jail cell with three other inmates. His parents eventually bailed him out, but he lost his scholarship and could not get into college. He ended up doing a few small jobs instead and could never get back on the track he had set for himself. “Things would’ve been different if this hadn’t happened when I was younger,” he said.
Furthermore, a misdemeanor conviction stays on one’s record, available to the public for three years before it can be expunged, which can have repercussions for both current and future employment.
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In many states, any marijuana conviction, misdemeanor or felony, may be considered by private or public employers as grounds for dismissal or refusal to hire, regardless of how the person actually performs. In Alabama for example, any felony marijuana conviction results in a lifetime bar from any government employment. “Employers look at marijuana use as a character flaw, rather than as youthful indiscretion,” said Holland, adding that the widespread attitude to the substance was such that cannabis users were considered by many to be the scourge of society.
Allen Roberts of Charlotte, N.C., then 17 years old, was at a park with a group of neighborhood friends, for a summer festival. One police