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Marijuana laws have changed to the point where several drug offenses no longer bear the strong charges they once used to have. This implies that rather than being dealt with a potential jail term when caught with small quantities of marijuana, the penalties for a person charged with possession basically constitute a small fine. It also really means that a charge of possession in a decriminalization state will generally not lead to an arrest or any of the other punishments and procedures applied to people charged with a criminal offense.

It must be explained thoroughly that when it comes to marijuana laws, decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization. To decriminalize something means that a state repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, but no longer subject to prosecution.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 repercussion of eliminating jail as a sentencing option for cannabis possession has primarily been a positive one. Despite worries that drug use would increase because of decriminalization, there is little evidence to show that this took place 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 designated elsewhere.

Marijuana Laws: What to Do If Busted Before Marijuana Decriminalization

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

If you are one of those unlucky individuals or know somebody who was found guilty before marijuana possession became decriminalized or even legal, you are perhaps asking if there is any legal recourse that could actually 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 applied to decrease or end a conviction that occurred 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, such as shoplifting. The change wouldn’t lessen their sentence, Proposition 36 also enabled courts to resentence offenders presently serving life sentences for non-violent third strike convictions, allowing for retroactive ameliorative relief.

Though post-conviction relief differs from state-to-state in the U.S., amelioration usually 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 hardly ever 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 primarily issued by the head executive of a jurisdiction (e.g., mayor, governor, or president), and a pardon, which more often than not forgives all criminal liability for a person’s wrongdoing, is considered the highest form of clemency.


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