Four states–Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. Next week, California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will decide whether to join their ranks. The most recent national polls show that the majority of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized.
Despite this growing consensus against putting people in jail for possessing marijuana, there are still elected prosecutors who pursue convictions for marijuana possession. Here’s a snapshot of four prosecutors who are out of touch with voters on this issue.
Dearborn County, Indiana
Aaron Negangard, the district attorney of Dearborn County, Indiana, recently told The New York Times: “I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties.” Negangard has claimed that “Marijuana is a gateway drug to heroin,” despite the lack of evidence to support that conclusion and a large body of evidence showing that prescription painkillers are more likely to blame. He also stated that a person who votes to legalize marijuana in neighboring Ohio, where the issue is on the ballot, “is voting to allow more children in the state…to use marijuana.” To accommodate Negangard’s bloated drug docket, including his misguided focus on incarcerating people for drug possession, and the increase in mentally ill inmates, Dearborn County needed to spend an $11.5 million to expand the local jail.
Maricopa County, Arizona
Don Ream, a now elderly U.S. combat veteran, served in the Vietnam War and even helped to commission a Navy destroyer–the USS Sample. When Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery learned Ream uses marijuana both medicinally and recreationally, he looked Ream in the face, and in front of a room full of people, called Ream “an enemy” and said: “I have no respect for you.”
Montgomery has also argued that legal marijuana will somehow lead to an increase in child users. He once Tweeted that legalizing marijuana in Maricopa County would lead to kids becoming “tricked, hooked, and expelled” from school. In a previous retweet, he warned that children won’t be able to differentiate between regular candy and marijuana-infused candy. More recently, he intimated that if marijuana is legalized, parents would need to start checking their children’s treat bags for edible marijuana.
He even once threatened to prosecute the parents of a 5-year-old who was successfully treated for seizures with marijuana extract, arguing that marijuana extract was not explicitly covered by the state’s medical marijuana act. At first, the parents stopped the treatment, but their son’s seizures immediately became worse. Then, with the help of the ACLU, the parents filed a suit against the state and won. The Arizona Superior Court ruled that the parents were protected by the act and that “it makes no sense to interpret [the law] as allowing people with these conditions to use medical marijuana but only if they take it in one particular form.”
Orleans Parish, Louisiana
Leon Cannizzaro, who mistakenly views marijuana possession to be associated with violent crime, prosecuted Bernard Noble, a Black man in his late 40s for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. Ultimately, Cannizzaro used Noble’s two prior felonies — 1991 and 2003 convictions for possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana — to obtain a 13.3 mandatory minimum under the state’s habitual felony offender law.
Another Black man in New Orleans, Corey Ladd, was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison without parole for a half-ounce of marijuana found during a traffic stop. Ladd was not alleged to be a dealer, though he did have two drug possession priors from several years earlier.
Cumberland County, Maine
Stephanie Anderson, the head prosecutor in Cumberland County, wrote an op-ed in October 2016 decrying Maine’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in which she wielded baseless fear-mongering as her primary tool. For instance, she stated that marijuana legalization would lead to “Big Tobacco 2.0.” Specifically, she hypothesized that companies will “aggressively market” marijuana by alleging that it is not harmful, while increasing potency and the number of addicts. Anderson also claims that Maine’s marijuana ballot initiative sets kids up “as a huge new market for commerce,” despite the fact that the proposed bill clearly states that possession would be for adults age 21 and over.
Polling shows that a majority of Mainers support legalization.
Law enforcement should focus on serious crimes. The prosecution of marijuana possession wastes tax dollars, often results in overly harsh punishments, and disproportionately impacts communities of color and the poor. As the public trend moves towards legalizing marijuana, these prosecutors should follow the lead of their constituents, rather than clinging to outdated, failed policies.
About the Fair Punishment Project
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyering, and racial bias, and to highlight the unconstitutional use of excessive punishment. The Project also closely partners with The Bronx Defenders, which provides invaluable strategic, research, and writing assistance.