Suspending licenses for pot possession

Another component of criminal justice reform pending before the legislature involves penalties for small amounts of marijuana. Mississippi once had relatively mild penalties, a $200 fine, signed into law by Mississippi Gov. Cliff Finch. Several years ago, the state legislature changed this by adding an automatic six months drivers license suspension to any drug charge, including small amounts of pot. The suspension is automatic and has no bearing on whether operating a vehicle was involved in the charge.

In a rural state like Mississippi, with virtually no public transportation, a six months drivers license suspension is disaster, causing people to lose jobs and drop out of school. Hardship waivers are available, but that involves more legal hoops and fees. The net result has been hundreds of thousands of suspended licenses, creating an expensive bureaucratic nightmare for people who were organizationally challenged in the first place. Earlier this year, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety settled a lawsuit and agreed to reinstate 100,000 licenses suspended for failure to pay fines.

This is how a simple pot arrest spirals into incarceration: Person gets caught with pot. Then gets caught driving with a suspended license. Can’t pay fine. Gets thrown in jail. Can’t afford bail. Sits there in jail for months. Is exposed to gang members. Can no longer get a job or a student loan with a criminal record. Joins a gang. Congratulations, Mississippi has just graduated a permanent new member of the criminal underclass. Crime goes up even more. Prison budget skyrockets.

We are under no delusion that marijuana is a harmless medicine. But banning all those caught with pot from driving is causing more harm than the drug itself and fueling our state’s unprecedented incarceration levels. Eleven states have legalized recreational marijuana. Twenty-two more states have legalized medical marijuana. Polls now show 65 percent of Mississippians favor medical marijuana. Conservative Mississippi may not be ready to legalize recreational marijuana but we should end the six months mandatory license suspension for possession of small amounts of pot.


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