If weed is no longer a crime, why are people still behind bars?

If weed is no longer a crime, why are people still behind bars?
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San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascon, has announced that potentially thousands of past criminal convictions for minor marijuana offenses will be reduced or expunged, now that recreational use of cannabis is legal in California.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend. It just makes sense, when voters or a legislature decide that an activity should no longer be illegal, to apply that standard retroactively.

All across the country, millions of otherwise law-abiding folks are dealing with the consequences for having a joint or two, often decades past. Those consequences range from having to check a box on a job application to endangered professional certifications to even being denied the rights to vote or own a firearm.

More than 100 million Americans have used marijuana at some point in their lives. Until a few short years ago, every single one of those millions has broken the law. The distinguishing factor between the criminals and the rest was nothing more than whether they got caught.


With a majority of Americans now believing simple marijuana use should not be a crime, expunging or reducing the convictions of all those folks who got caught is the right thing to do. Not for violent criminals. Not for serious felons. But for the millions who are carrying a criminal record around for simple possession or other minor offenses under outdated laws, absolutely.


In 1999, as a sitting Republican governor, I prompted a widespread belief that I had committed political hara-kiri by calling for the legalization of marijuana. At the time, I believe I was the highest-ranking official in the country to do so. For any governor, it would have raised eyebrows, much less for a Republican who had been elected in part on a “tough on crime” platform.

It is tempting to claim that I was remarkably prescient about where public opinion would be 20 years later, or that I was otherwise just ahead of my time. In reality, it was much simpler than that.

I had told New Mexicans that I would take a cost-benefit approach to governing, that I would work to be sure their tax dollars and state resources were used wisely. After a few years in office, in the course of reviewing the annual budget for the state, I started asking questions about where all our law enforcement, prison and courts dollars were going. When I began to get answers, it was shocking how much we were devoting — time, energy, dollars — to enforcing marijuana prohibition. 

And for what? Court backlogs, a prison system so overburdened that the federal Department of Justice had, before I took office, taken it over, and police officers spending their time dealing with kids smoking pot rather than protecting the public from real criminals.

It became obvious to me very quickly that treating marijuana users as criminals was doing far more harm than good. We weren’t “protecting” anyone. Instead, we were clogging up the courts, filling jails and, most tragically, ruining a lot of lives. 

We can’t recoup all the dollars and resources that have been lost to a failed war on marijuana. But we CAN give millions of Americans the opportunity to at least partially reclaim the reputations, job options and fundamental rights they have lost to simple, nonviolent drug convictions.

It will be a massive task, as San Francisco is learning. But reducing or expunging convictions for offenses that are no longer crimes is not just the right thing to do — it’s the obligation of a civilized, just society.

Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonWhere Biden, Trump stand in key swing states Amash decides against Libertarian campaign for president The Hill's Campaign Report: Amash moves toward Libertarian presidential bid MORE served as governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003. He was the 2016 Libertarian Party nominee for president.