Even as pot shops rake in millions in Colorado, and the possibility grows of the drug becoming legal in as many as a dozen other states, a handful of Americans are serving life sentences for selling marijuana.
At least 25 people have been condemned to live out their days behind bars because they were involved in the marijuana trade, according to The Human Solution, a pot advocacy group. Some played relatively small roles in larger distribution rings and got life sentences in part because they refused to plead guilty and testify against associates. Others held positions of power in major trafficking organizations.
James Romans, a divorced 42-year-old father of three from Indiana, says he belongs in the former category. But last year, a federal judge ruled differently, sentencing him to life based on evidence suggesting that he helped run a multimillion dollar operation.
Whatever his role, the case raises questions about the fairness of punishing marijuana offenders with the criminal justice system’s harshest penalty short of death.
“It doesn’t seem to me in this day and age, when states are debating whether marijuana should be legal, that people who traffic in it should be spending their lives behind bars,” said David Zlotnick, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and an expert on drug sentencing laws at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. “If we’re not sure whether this drug should even be an illegal narcotic, why are we sending people to jail for life for it?”