Marijuana laws throughout the United States are in a state of confusion. Thirty states have legalized marijuana in some form. Forty years ago, former Gov. Cliff Finch led Mississippi to become one of the first states to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. But recently, the state legislature added an automatic six months drivers license suspension for possession. This wreaks havoc in our automobile-based society. Possession of paraphernalia was never decriminalized. A simple pipe or papers can lead to a year in jail. Possession of larger amounts of pot and selling even small quantities carry extremely stiff penalties in Mississippi, possibly decades in jail.
The national disparity in marijuana laws is on display in Madison County where a Jamaican Rastafarian musician, Tommy Beadle, has recently been convicted of possession after being stopped for a routine traffic violation.
Beadle, a college graduate with two years of medical school, said he bought the marijuana legally in Oregon. He has a medical marijuana license for knee pain from playing college basketball. Beadle said he was travelling through Mississippi as a tourist attracted to the Delta Blues Trail. His family is distraught and pleading for mercy. He could be sentenced for up to 40 years.
Anybody who has ever listened to Bob Marley’s world-renowned reggae music knows Jamaicans, especially Rastafarians, like to smoke pot. In fact, Rastafarians consider pot to be part of their religious beliefs. We’re not sure how much Beadle understands America, but there is a big difference between the pot laws of Oregon and Mississippi. Granted, 2.8 pounds is a lot of pot but Rastafarians are well known for smoking prodigious amounts of the herb. It is sad to see a promising young man caught in the middle of our nation’s indecisiveness on the issue of marijuana legalization.
Madison County Circuit Judge William Chapman has delayed sentencing for several weeks as he ponders the dilemma. “Why shouldn’t I send this defendant as a first-time offender for simple possession?” he was quoted as saying.
We hope Chapman has the discretion to consider another issue: money. The Mississippi Department of Corrections spent $333 million last year housing about 19,000 prisoners. That’s about $18,000 per prisoner per year, more than the cost of many college tuitions. If Chapman applies the maximum sentence, it would cost Mississippi taxpayers three-quarters of a million dollars. That’s a lot of money to waste destroying a young man’s life.
And let’s not forget that our prisons, because of neglect and underfunding, are being corrupted by the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples. There is a good chance Beadle will be assaulted or raped with little chance of protection unless he joins one of the gangs. This could lead him toward a life of crime and violence. How is that going to help the state of Mississippi? Or the trauma could precipitate a mental break, costing even more state money. Perhaps he will one day be released, mentally traumatized, broke and homeless like the many people we see wandering around downtown Jackson with no place to go. Not a good image for our capital city.
Pew Research Center recently conducted a poll showing 61 percent of Americans support legalization. If Mississippi doesn’t join the majority of states legalizing marijuana, then at least the state legislature should lessen the penalties to be more in line with the changing national attitudes. Otherwise, Mississippi’s draconian pot laws will increasingly appear out of sync with the nation, furthering our state’s reputation as backward and repressive. It will further the exodus of young people from Mississippi to states considered more progressive and open minded.