A decade ago, Andy Cox was sentenced to federal prison for growing 594 marijuana plants in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest, plus another 724 seedlings on his father's property. The total put him above the 1,000-plant threshold that would ordinarily trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. But because Cox had two prior marijuana convictions, 10 years became the rest of his life.
The 1,318 plants that resulted in a life sentence for Cox amounted to less than 4 percent of the crop grown by Los Sueños Farms, a state-licensed business in Pueblo County, Colorado, where marijuana was legalized a few years after Cox's trial. As pot prohibition continues to collapse across the country, such jarring contrasts have become par for the course.
An estimated 40,000 marijuana offenders are serving time in state or federal prisons for agricultural or commercial activities that are now legal in nine states, earning entrepreneurs profits instead of prison sentences. According to the website lifeforpot.com, more than two dozen marijuana offenders are serving life sentences or prison terms that amount to the same thing.
Life sentences for cannabis are rare, and the vast majority of people arrested on marijuana charges—about 660,000 in 2017, nine out of 10 for simple possession—serve little or no time behind bars (although they may suffer long-lasting ancillary penalties). But some states still come down hard even on minor pot offenses.
In Cox's home state of Georgia, possessing one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Any more than that is a felony, triggering a one-year mandatory minimum and a maximum of 10 years for amounts up to 10 pounds. Pot penalties are similarly harsh in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming, where the lowest-level marijuana offense can be punished by up to a year behind bars.
Even states that are not quite so punitive can have nasty surprises in store for cannabis consumers. In Texas, possessing two ounces or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. But possessing any amount of cannabis concentrate is a felony, and the maximum penalties apply to weights above 400 grams. The entire weight of food or beverages spiked with concentrate counts toward that threshold, which is why a teenager caught with 1.4 pounds of pot cookies and brownies in 2014 initially faced a sentence of 10 years to life.
At the other extreme are the 10 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont, and Washington) where possessing small amounts of marijuana (usually an ounce in public, more at home) carries no penalty at all for adults 21 or older. Some states that have not yet legalized recreational marijuana use, such as Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, and New York, have decriminalized possession of small amounts, which is punishable by a civil fine.
Wyoming, one of the most punitive states, also has the highest marijuana arrest rate: 415 per 100,000 in 2016, according to data compiled by Jon Gettman, an assistant professor of justice at Shenandoah University, compared to 400 per 100,000 in New Jersey, its closest competitor. Oregon—where marijuana was legalized in 2014 but some cannabis-related activities, such as unlicensed commercial production and public possession of more than two ounces, are still treated as crimes—had the lowest pot arrest rate that year: 80 per 100,000.
Even in states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use, state-licensed growers and retailers are committing federal felonies every day. Those crimes theoretically expose them to the sort of prosecution that sent Andy Cox to prison for life. But Attorney General William Barr has said he is not interested in pursuing cases against marijuana merchants who comply with state law, and President Donald Trump has said he is inclined to support legislation that would exempt them from the federal ban.
Check out the rest of our stories for Weed Week 2019.