Drug Law

Life in Prison for Half an Ounce of Medical Marijuana?

| by Reason Foundation

By Jacob Sullum


A Texas state trooper stops a 1990 Mercedes with an expired registration sticker. The driver says he does not have his driver's license or proof of insurance. After arresting him for "failure to identify," the trooper searches him and his car, finding 14 grams (half an ounce) of marijuana and hashish. Indicted for possession with intent to deliver, he could be sent to prison for the rest of his life.

Does it matter that the defendant is a 20-year-old asthmatic who obtained the cannabis with a doctor's recommendation in California? Not under Texas law, which prohibits the use of marijuana for any purpose. And the situation in which Chris Diaz finds himself would be outrageous even without the medical angle. Senior Trooper Sparky Dean explains how a routine traffic stop turned into a potential life sentence:

The car had an expired registration. That could have been a citation and sent him [Diaz] down the road. He had no license or proof of insurance. Again, that could have been a citation. He had two ounces of marijuana, and that could have been a citation. But he had a controlled substance and he wouldn’t identify himself. [Trooper] Martin [Molotsky] had to arrest him.

Seriously? No matter what your view of the war on drugs, the leap from citable offense to a first-class felony is hard to fathom, let alone justify. In Texas, according to Dean, half an ounce of marijuana can get you anything from a ticket to life in prison, depending on factors that have nothing to  do with the moral gravity of the offense. Although Diaz's cannabis was still in the bottles used by the medical marijuana dispensary where he obtained it, Brown County prosecutors cite a cell phone "containing text messages referring to drug sales" and a notebook with "drug and law writings" as evidence of intent to deliver. They put the retail value of the cannabis at $2,400, or $171 per gram—more than 10 times the hash prices reported at 420 Magazine and Grass City. Diaz has been held in the Brown County Jail since June 27, with bail set at $40,000.

In case you're wondering whether cannabis is an effective treatment for asthma, you can find discussions of that issue here and here.