Reason Roundup

This 38-Year-Old Man Will Spend Life in Prison Over 1.5 Ounces of Marijuana

Plus: The gas crisis, it's time to free Reality Winner, and more...


Reminder: People are still sentenced to life in prison for marijuana possession. With so many states choosing to legalize marijuana, it's easy to forget how draconian the penalties for possession can still be. Case in point: The Mississippi Court of Appeals just upheld a life sentence for 38-year-old Allen Russell for being in possession of about one and a half ounces of the drug.

Russell was sentenced in 2019, after being convicted for having 1.55 ounces (or about 44 grams) of marijuana. On appeal, Russell's lawyers argued that his life sentence amounts to "cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate."

In general, "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" in Mississippi, according to the drug policy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

But this sentence can increase drastically if a person has previous felony convictions.

"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," notes the Associated Press. Russell had been convicted in 2004 of burglary (serving more than eight years in prison for it).

"By law, burglary is a violent offense in Mississippi, whether or not there is proof that violence occurred," the A.P. points out. "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."

Then, in 2015, Russell was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He served two more years in prison.  The marijuana arrest came in 2017.

"The evidence at trial showed that police found five bags of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana inside a pair of Russell's blue jeans," noted Judge P.J. Wilson of the appeals court in a dissent from the majority opinion. "The total weight of the bags was 79.5 grams, and an analysis of two of the five bags showed that they contained 43.71 grams of marijuana. The remaining bags were not analyzed because the charge only required proof of more than 30 grams."

Because by this point, Russell was what the state deems a "habitual offender," his conviction came with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without eligibility "for parole, probation or any other form of early release from actual physical custody within the Department of Corrections."

Russell's case presents another example of the absurd and unfair way that U.S. criminal laws can be stacked against people to create absurdly severe punishments.

Owning a gun in Mississippi is not illegal in and of itself—but because Russell had a previous felony conviction, it is for him. A person with a previous felony conviction and a firearm is guilty of unlawful possession.

Marijuana possession in Mississippi is always illegal without a prescription—but not a life-in-prison offense.

Yet because Russell made that initial mistake more than a decade earlier, he's now sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for something that other Mississippians might get sentenced to one year for, and Americans in many other places can buy legally in state-sanctioned stores.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals ruled that Russell's sentence was not cruel and unusual because it was in keeping with Mississippi law on "habitual offenders." Several judges dissented from the majority opinion.

"The evidence at trial indicated that he had somewhere between 43.71 and 79.5 grams of marijuana in his blue jeans. If his jeans had contained only 30 grams of marijuana, it would have been treated as a civil infraction punishable by only a small fine," noted Wilson in his dissent, which was joined by four other judges. In addition, "there is nothing in the record to show that Russell's prior crimes involve any actual acts of violence or other aggravating circumstances."

The U.S. Supreme Court "has held that a particular sentence is unconstitutional in a case that is not materially distinguishable from the case in front of us," the dissenting judges noted, meaning the Mississippi Appeals Court is "obliged to apply the Supreme Court's decision and vacate the sentence."

"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," one of the dissenters, Judge Latrice Westbrooks, wrote. "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 time to free Reality Winner, writes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan:

She anonymously mailed a copy of a single document to the investigative news organization the Intercept. But despite that outlet's reputation for taking top-secret information and turning it into news stories, its staffers didn't take all the precautions that might have protected their source. Then, when a fleet of FBI agents showed up at her home, Winner didn't insist on first consulting a lawyer.

Soon, she was indicted under the Espionage Act and eventually pleaded guilty to one felony count of transmission of national defense information. No one has ever received a longer sentence, more than five years, for leaking classified information to a media outlet.

A heartbreaking — and infuriating — new documentary about how the Trump Justice Department went after her reinforced my long-held belief that, although her prison term is due to end in November, it's high time for our government to set Winner free.


What's behind skyrocketing gas prices? And what can be done? "A cyber-attack on the company that operates one of the country's most important fuel pipelines has temporarily crippled the supply of gasoline and jet fuel to much of the East Coast, causing prices at the pump to rise by several cents in most of the affected states," Reason's Eric Boehm explains. "More increases could be on the way as some gas stations have run out of fuel amid a craze of panic-buying."

"These sorts of disruptions are annoying, but they don't signal an imminent Mad Max-style future for America. They are, by nature, self-limiting," notes the R Street Institute's Josiah Neeley. That is, the shortage is temporary. But bad policies people are pushing in response are not. Let's keep that in mind as we formulate responses, Neeley suggests.


• "Edwin Chandler…spent 10 years in prison because of [former Louisville Detective Mark] Handy's lies," notes the Louisville Courier-Journal. Handy also helped send three other innocent men to prison. On Tuesday, Handy was sentenced to spend one year behind bars.

• I talked to Right Now's Stephen Kent about libertarian feminism, "the she-cession narrative," why capitalism is good for women, and more: 

• CNN journalists, "traditionally restricted by industry-wide standards of impartiality, have been given the green light under network President Jeff Zucker to say what they actually want to say — even if it strikes some as opinionated.…These days, it's not uncommon for CNN personalities to cry on air." What does this mean for the station's (at least one-time) reputation as a neutral news outlet?

• The promise of legal psychedelics: