Maryland District Judge Askew Gatewood brushed off a prosecutor's request to jail Ronald Hammond for possessing 5.9 grams of marijuana — saying it wasn't even enough pot to "roll you a decent joint" — and ordered the Baltimore man to pay a $100 fine instead. But the case eventually led to a 20-year prison sentence for Hammond.
As the Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported, Hammond was on probation at the time for selling $40 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover officer. Maryland Circuit Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays suspended a 20-year sentence in that case, telling Hammond he would face the full term if he violated his probation in any way.
When Hammond ended up back in court for the paltry amount of marijuana, it wasn't enough to convince a judge to put him in jail. But it turns out — to Hammond's surprise — the crime was enough to violate his probation. As a result, the possession of "$5 worth of weed," as described by Judge Gatewood, triggered the full 20-year sentence.
So $45 worth of drugs, by the courts' calculations, landed Hammond 20 years in prison — a turn of events he's now appealing in court.
This case is just another example of how drug policies can stack up to create what seems like an excessive sentence. In another case, mandatory minimum sentences, which require a certain number of years in prison for drug crimes, forced a Utah judge to give a man a 55-year sentence for selling marijuana while in possession of a firearm — a sentence the judge now says he regrets.
The public and experts don't want harsh drug sentences
The long sentences are sharply out of line with public opinion. Various surveys — from Gallup and the Pew Research Center — have found a majority of the public supports legalizing marijuana. A 2014 Pew survey found nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that states should move away from mandatory minimum sentences, which can be very harsh, for nonviolent drug crimes, and more than two-thirds said drug policy should focus on providing treatment over prosecuting drug users.
Experts and research also suggest these types of sentences are far too long. Studies show that mass incarceration hasn't reduced crime much, if at all. Surveys have found that drug use has trended up since the early 1990s despite harsher prison sentences. And experts are increasingly backing reforms like California's Proposition 47, which reduces all simple drug possession — even for heroin and cocaine — to a non-felony to help reduce America's huge incarcerated population, which is the largest in the world.
"We can't arrest our way out of the problem"
The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy has similarly taken some steps to put greater focus on rehabilitation instead of the criminal justice system to combat drug abuse. "We can't arrest our way out of the problem," Michael Botticelli, director of ONDCP, told me last year, "and we really need to focus our attention on proven public health strategies to make a significant difference as it relates to drug use and consequences to that in the United States."
But local and state governments haven't fully caught on to public or expert opinion — or even to the White House's relaxed approach. And for people like Hammond, that results in a 20-year sentence for $45 worth of drugs.