Sometimes, a story is repeated so often that it becomes hard to distinguish if it was ever really true in the first place.
One such tale involves the theory that jails and prisons are full of marijuana offenders. This might have been true once, when judges like the late Frank Connett believed that any conviction involving the sale of drugs deserved at least some time behind bars.
Times have changed, and that mindset has gone up in smoke, for practical reasons of prison overcrowding but also because judges and prosecutors today are strong believers in alternative treatment courts and rehabilitation for non-violent drug offenders.
Yet many people believe that prisons are full of marijuana smokers serving lengthy sentences, while murderers and child molesters get off with a slap on the wrist.
This is a myth.
Since 2014, Buchanan County prosecuted 11 felony marijuana cases that resulted in prison time, out of more than 8,000 criminal filings. Of those 11 cases, all involved something more than a college student with a joint in a backpack.
In 10 cases, the offender was caught with more than 35 grams of marijuana, the threshold for charging felony possession. In one, the defendant possessed 2 pounds of high-grade marijuana. In another, authorities found 282 grams of marijuana and $4,900 in cash.
Other cases included aggravating circumstances like violation of probation, possession of a sawed-off shotgun, a past armed robbery charge or possession of harder drugs along with marijuana.
“Unless you have a prior record, you don’t even go to prison for selling drugs,” said Ron Holliday, the Buchanan County prosecutor. “We do everything possible to keep people out of prison or jail for drug offenses. In our community, people are given every opportunity to change their lives.”
Under Missouri law, you cannot go to prison if caught with up to 10 grams of marijuana. That small user amount calls for a fine of $500, though some jurisdictions, like Jackson County, have stopped filing charges in most marijuana possession cases.
Yet the myth of marijuana incarceration persists. Earlier this month, a protest outside the Buchanan County courthouse called attention to someone who received 15 years for some type of marijuana offense.
Maybe this was an outlier, or maybe there’s a backstory that we’re missing. Either way, it seems to conveniently overlook the big picture.
The story of the imprisoned pot smoker might be compelling, but it’s not entirely accurate. A better story is the hard work those in our criminal justice system — not to mention some of the offenders themselves — are making toward rehabilitation instead of incarceration.