Marijuana is more socially acceptable now than ever before, especially among young people. In the modern world, those who don’t toke really don’t care if other people do, yet not that long ago, many people uninitiated into cannabis culture looked down on reefer and those who smoke it. Of course, the irony is that many of the Archie Bunker types, who berated hippies and stoners, drank alcohol and smoked tobacco, but now we have gotten to the point where smoking cigarettes in public carries a far greater social stigma than smoking cannabis in one’s own home. In fact, Archie Bunker would be spinning in his TV Land grave if he knew that being gay and smoking weed are far less violative of 21st Century societal norms than his habit of smoking cigars and throwing around racial slurs.
But it is not just people’s attitudes about cannabis, which have changed. So too have the general’s public’s understanding of the penalties associated with breaking the marijuana prohibition laws. Marijuana is neither legal nor decriminalized in Pennsylvania. In fact, we do not even have legalized medical marijuana, yet a lot of people mistakenly believe that marijuana laws are just not enforced anymore. Anywhere. In the whole US. Not just Colorado and Washington State. It is not just college students who have somehow developed the mistaken belief that marijuana arrests are from a historical time before they were born. A lot of their parents have come to believe the same thing.
During Penn State’s fall and spring semesters, I receive calls each week from students and parents alike about marijuana-related charges. Invariably, some of them are utterly shocked to find out that one can be charged with a crime for smoking or possessing marijuana, if there was absolutely no intention to sell it. Yes, you really do have to go to the Centre County Correctional Facility to be fingerprinted and photographed over a $30 bag of weed, a grinder and a bong. And yes, you can have a criminal record with the Pennsylvania State Police, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the FBI for possessing part of a plant and/ or drug paraphernalia in the form of a smoking device.
An even greater shock awaits those charged with delivery, “manufacture” or possession with intent to deliver marijuana. Many of the students and parents dealing with felony marijuana-related charges are blown away when I tell them that a life-altering felony conviction and jail time are distinct possibilities. They cannot fathom that people are still being incarcerated over marijuana, or that a prosecutor would be so malicious as to “want to ruin their life” over “just marijuana.”
Granted, those who are most shocked tend to be from a privileged background. They are overwhelmingly white and college-educated with above average incomes. By contrast, when I deal with minorities from cities or rural, less-educated, white people from Central Pennsylvania, they already know that jail time is a possibility. They might not like the marijuana laws or agree with them, but they at least know the laws exist. I think this is because the less privileged in society are more likely to know Drug War victims, while more affluent people have the luxury of living in an idyllic bubble, where only “bad people” are charged with crimes, not non-violent pot smokers, and certainly not Eagles Scouts, THON captains and Schreyer Honors College students with 4.0 GPAs.
When I was in high school and college, everyone from the most wholesome Mennonite girl to the biggest badass in the school knew that selling marijuana would lead to prison time, but of course, back then, cannabis smoking was not the mainstream, socially acceptable activity it is today. Apparently, many in the general public have just assumed that because marijuana is no longer stigmatized, then the laws must have changed too. This is simply not the case. In Pennsylvania, marijuana possession for personal use and possession of drug paraphernalia are still misdemeanor charges, which carry the possibility of jail time, a driver’s license suspension, loss of federally subsidized student loans and financial aid, and a criminal record. Selling or cultivating marijuana constitutes a felony charge with even greater negative consequences. None of this will change unless and until the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the governor enact legislation to revoke or amend the Prohibition laws. In the meantime, certain district attorney’s offices, especially in rural areas of the Commonwealth, will continue to zealously prosecute Prohibition violators.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He is a member of the NORML Legal Committee.