Sixteen years on, I can’t forget the joint Will Foster showed me. You wouldn’t, either. That joint — the jumble of tissue at the midpoint of his index finger — was so bulbous and discolored as to be screaming to exit his skin.
Foster has severe arthritis afflicting his extremities. But when I saw him in 1998, he had a bigger problem on his hands.
He was in prison for 93 years for growing pot. No joke.
A first-time offender. An honorably discharged veteran. Didn’t matter to an Oklahoma judge and jury.
Another thing I remember from our conversation: Rather than having an addiction, Foster cultivated the marijuana because he didn’t want to get addicted — to codeine and other painkillers. He said he didn’t like how they left him groggy and unable to be a responsible parent.
No matter. Pot is pot. Next defendant.
Well, America, it matters. This the madness our parents should have warned us about — the incalculable expense of pursuing and prosecuting people for a beer-buzz indulgence; the disrupted lives; the suffering of families; the pain. So much pain.
It was a blessed day in Colorado Jan. 1 when lines peaceably formed to purchase pot legally at state-licensed vendors. The nation will be twice blessed when Washington state does the same.
This is what most Americans want. In 2013 for the first time the Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans polled, 52%, support pot decriminalization. More pertinently, 72% said that prosecuting pot offenses wasn’t worth the cost.
But there’s that addiction component. Not to codeine, not to THC, but to law-and-order bombast, to penal overkill. And, of course, to that standby crutch: good old hypocrisy.
“Do as I say, not as I did.”
New York Times soft-right pundit David Brooks didn’t use those words, but he spoke for a red sea of hypocrites when he wrote about his own experience with marijuana and then explained why, though he never paid the price, others should if caught.
He pointed to the “moral ecology” of the nation and said that decriminalization in Colorado and Washington state undermines it.
I can’t disagree with Brooks that smoking pot, as he did as a teen, “isn’t something to be proud of,” and that “stoned people do stupid things.” Being stoned yields stupidity. Stupidity is not a crime. (Or our prisons would be packed with most of the performers who fill the nightly lineup on A&E.)
It is important to point out that as with much of the criminally excessive drug war, minorities pay excessively for pot prohibition.
An American Civil Liberties Union analysis found that, though their pot usage rate generally is comparable to that of whites, the pot arrest rate for minorities is vastly higher.
Some people will dismiss this and say that few people go to prison for pot any more. That’s not the point. Being arrested and charged with any crime is a costly, wrenching matter. It is one more way we create a criminal class.
It is said that crime does not pay. But in fact, it does — for the penal industrial complex that treats human beings like farm commodities.
So, is Will Foster rotting in prison all these years later? No, he isn’t. He was released in 2001 after three attempts at parole and an appeals court ruling reducing a sentence it said “shocks our conscience.”
That — three years for medicinal weed — wasn’t the end of his nightmare. After moving to California, he was arrested on a minor parole violation and sent back to Oklahoma. All told, those joints — the nasty nubs Will Foster called fingers, cost him four years of his life.
Madness. Yeah, that’s what you’d call it. And, whether or not policy will ever reflect it, most Americans would prefer that it end.
John Young is a longtime Texas newspaperman who now lives in Fort Collins, Colo. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See johnyoungcolumn.com.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014
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