Sensi: People Still Going to Jail in the US for Possession

Leland Rucker, Senior Editor at Sensi Magazine, takes a look at how hundreds of thousands of Americans are still being jailed for possession of small amounts of marijuana, generally less than an ounce.

Marijuana possession remains a criminal offense punishable by jail time in 28 states. The maximum penalties for simple possession range from a $300 fine and 15 days in jail (Louisiana, for 14 grams or less) to a $6,000 fine and a year in jail (Alabama, any amount). Eleven of the states where you can still go to jail for a little pot have legalized marijuana for medical use.

In 2015, the latest year for which FBI numbers are available, police in the United States made 643,121 arrests for marijuana offenses, the vast majority (about nine out of 10) for possession. That total was a two-decade low but still more than twice the number in 1991.

New Hampshire recently became the 22nd state to eliminate jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Adults in NH faced a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $2,000 and up to a year in jail and now possessions of three-quarters of an ounce or less will face a civil fine of $100 for a first offense.

Eight states that have decriminalized marijuana possession, plus the District of Columbia, have eliminated all penalties for adults 21 older who stay below the legal limit (typically an ounce outside the home). Those eight states also have legalized production and distribution for recreational use.

In 14 states, possession of small amounts remains illegal but is punishable by no more than a fine. Possession is a civil offense in 10 of those states. In the rest (Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio), it is still a misdemeanor. The cutoffs range from 10 grams (about a third of an ounce) in Illinois, Maryland, and Missouri to three and a half ounces in Ohio.

Rucker also fills us in on some changes to marijuana regulation in Colorado that has been vetoed by state regulators.

The Colorado Board of Health voted 6-1 to delete a proposed change to the state rules for caregivers, who are designated to grow pot on behalf of medical marijuana patients.

Colorado currently limits caregivers to five patients and requires them to be responsible for other duties besides just growing pot. But the state allows “waivers” for caregivers to add patients. Only four caregivers would have been affected by the rule change, but those growers serve 100 or even more patients. They avoid taxes and regulations required by commercial growers.

Health officials say they aren’t trying to reduce medical-marijuana supply, just make sure caregivers are complying with state laws regarding their responsibilities to patients.

“We want to change the perception that caregivers do nothing but provide marijuana to their patients. Caregivers that want to focus on production and distribution should look at becoming medical marijuana centers,” said Dana Erpelding, director of the department’s Center for Health & Environmental Data.

But the Board declined to set a hard cap of 10 patients, instead adopting stricter guidelines for getting those waivers to grow on behalf of many patients. The new criteria include proximity to licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries.

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