The Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld a life sentence for a 38-year-old man for possession of 1.5 oz of marijuana – which is now legalized in a majority of states in the US – but not Mississippi. The man, Allen Russell, had two previous offenses: A burglary conviction in 2004 and unlawful possession of a firearm in 2015. The third violation, possession of an ounce and a half of marijuana, was Russell’s “third strike”.

Under Mississippi law, a person can be sentenced to life without parole after serving at least one year in prison on three separate felonies, one of which must be a violent offense. Russell was first convicted of two home invasions, and he was sentenced concurrently under those charges. However, at the time these were not crimes of violence. At the time of his 2019 conviction, the crime was retroactively considered a crime of violence.

Russell’s second conviction related to the firearm was not a violent offense.

The conviction related to marijuana, under Mississippi law, is a felony. He was in possession of one and a half ounces, or 43.71 grams (1.54 oz). He was charged with possession of between 30 and 250 grams (1.06 – 8.82 oz) of marijuana. His mistake of possessing just 13 extra grams of marijuana has now resulted in his being sentenced to life in prison for conduct that is legal in a majority of U.S. states.

“This case highlights the long-lasting effect of flawed marijuana policy in this country,” stated Justin Walsh, a partner at Gleam Law, PLLC, a cannabis-centric law firm in Seattle, and an Adjunct Professor of law, who teaches Cannabis Law & Policy at Seattle University School of Law. “The term marijuana was popularized as a xenophobic term directed at Mexican migrants. Throughout history, marijuana laws have disproportionately targeted communities of color. Nixon’s war on drugs, the removal of sentencing discretion, and the lumping of cannabis in with more dangerous drugs have done just as much to decimate communities of color, if not more, than Jim Crow laws and redlining. This heartbreaking opinion is just a continuation of these policies.”

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