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Marijuana laws have changed to the point where particular drug offenses no longer bear the severe charges they once used to. This means that rather than being dealt with a possible jail term when caught with small quantities of marijuana, the penalties for a person charged with possession mainly consist of a small fine. It also really means that a charge of possession in a decriminalization state will actually not lead to an arrest or any of the other punishments and procedures applicable to individuals charged with a criminal offense.

It must be noted that when it comes to marijuana laws, decriminalization is not the same as legalization. To decriminalize something implies that a state repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution. In the marijuana context, this means individuals caught with little quantities of marijuana for personal use won’t be prosecuted and won’t subsequently receive a criminal record or a jail sentence. In many states, possession of small amounts of marijuana is treated like a minor traffic violation. States that have decriminalized marijuana include Alaska, California, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and majority of the Northeast.

The effect of eliminating jail as a sentencing option for cannabis possession has basically been a positive one. Despite worries that drug use would increase because of decriminalization, there is little proof to show that this occurred in any of the states that have decriminalized small quantities of marijuana. Reductions in the costs of enforcement and courts have implied that these funds can be allocated elsewhere.

Marijuana Laws: What to Do If Busted, Before Marijuana Decriminalization

Prior to the reform, people were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to jail (often for long periods of time) for simple possession. Marijuana laws have considerably changed, in some cases making it possible for adults to possess a small amount of marijuana, those already sentenced are still in jail serving sentences to this very day.

If you are one of those unfortunate individuals or know somebody who was found guilty before marijuana possession became decriminalized, or even legal, you are possibly thinking if there is any legal recourse that could help.

Marijuana Laws: Ex Post Facto Laws Are Prohibited

Under Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution’s, ex post facto laws are prohibited.

An ex post facto law is “a law that retroactively alters a defendant’s right, especially by criminalization and imposing punishment for an act that was not criminal or punishable at the time it was committed, but increasing the severity of a crime … by increasing the punishment for a crime … or by taking away from the protections afforded the defendant.”

In other words, laws can not be applied retroactively to convict you of a crime that wasn’t a crime when you committed it.

Marijuana Laws: Retroactive Amelioration Relief

A new law decriminalizing a crime can not be used to lower or end a conviction that took place prior to the new law’s passage, unless the law has a retroactive amelioration clause.

Take for example Proposition 36, in which California amended the three strikes law to impose a life sentence only when a third felony conviction is serious or violent. Before the amendment, many were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent crimes, like shoplifting. The change wouldn’t lessen their sentence, Proposition 36 also allowed courts to re-sentence offenders presently serving life sentences for non-violent third strike convictions, allowing for retroactive ameliorative relief.

Though post-conviction relief varies from state-to-state in the U.S., amelioration generally needs to be clearly detailed by lawmakers for it to take effect. In a political system immobilized by the need of candidates to seem hard on crime, this scarcely occurs.

Marijuana Laws: Applying for a Pardon

A pardon is one type of clemency– a privilege that is given to certain suspects or convicts that either lessens or removes their criminal liability. Clemency is generally issued by the head executive of a jurisdiction (e.g., mayor, governor, or president), and a pardon, which often forgives all criminal liability for a person’s wrongdoing, is considered the highest form of clemency.


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