Marijuana Reform: Free Allen Russell

The insanity of the war on drugs needs to stop. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. Roughly 40% of Americans live in jurisdictions where some form of marijuana use is legal– that’s over 130 million people. Marijuana companies trade on stock markets. Former Congressman John Boehner, once a staunch opponent of legalization (“unalterably opposed” were his own words), now makes millions promoting marijuana. The industry generates billions of dollars of revenue and taxes and employs thousands of people. Susan Collins now supports providing marijuana businesses access to banking through the SAFE Act, and banks can hardly wait to start making money on fees. Etc.

Legalization activists are winning the war. But lives are still lost daily.

Seventeen years ago, Allen Russell pleaded guilty to burglary charges and became a felon. After serving over 8 years in prison, Mr. Russell pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon, which added another felony to his record, and he served a couple more years in prison.

In 2019, Mr. Allen was caught up in a local police raid and the police seized 43 grams of marijuana.

43 grams of marijuana. That’s roughly 1.5 ounces.  Here, in Oregon you can possess 8 ounces of marijuana in your home and up to an ounce on your person without any worry of legal trouble from state or local police.

Life sentence without eligibility for probation or parole.

That was the sentence imposed by the trial court in Mississippi.

That was the sentence affirmed by the Mississippi Court of Appeals earlier this week, on May 11, 2021.

You read that right: this happened a week ago. Mr. Allen is going to spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of release, because of 43 grams of marijuana. The sentencing court relied on his two prior felony convictions to conclude that Mr. Allen was a “violent habitual offender” and thus deserving of a life sentence with no eligibility for probation or parole. That ruling was found correct on appeal.  Make no mistake, the prior felonies are no small matter. But 43 grams of marijuana. That’s all it took for a court to decide that Mr. Allen should spend the rest of his life in prison.

No matter how hard you squint, you won’t glimpse justice in this sentence. But the institutionalized racism of the war on drugs rests in plain sight.

Mr. Russell is not even 40 years old. He’s going to be in prison for the rest of his life: watching the country legalize marijuana, watching Mr. Boehner get richer, watching Wall Street make money on marijuana stocks, watching banks profit from marijuana, watching it all from a prison cell. All because he was a felon found with 43 grams of marijuana.

This is cruel and unusual punishment.

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