Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Making a real hash out of justice: a case study

This would be easy to overstate, but in comparison with much of the world, our country does a decent job of administering justice in a measured, equitable manner.

Sure, there's lots of room for improvement. For example, blacks are considerably more likely to be executed or incarcerated than are whites who commit the same crime. We should work on this.

Still, in a world that has at least 37 countries that outlaw homosexuality, at least 10 of which punish it with the death penalty, we do a reasonable job of administering even-handed, let-the-punishment-fit-the-crime justice.

Then there's Jacob Lavoro. Last week my local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, reported that Lavoro, a 19-year-old from Round Rock, Texas, has been charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.

Lavoro was caught baking brownies and cookies with a special ingredient, hash oil, a derivative of marijuana with a higher THC concentration than in the regular leaf. He's in particular trouble because prosecutors can charge him based on the entire weight of the brownies' ingredients — 660 grams — instead of just the weight of the hash oil. And in Texas, possession of over 400 grams of hash oil with intent to deliver can result in a sentence of as much as life in prison. Yes, life.

I'm no avid proponent of marijuana decriminalization or use, but it's disconcerting that a 19-year-old kid, who still lives with his parents, worked in a hamburger joint, and has no criminal record, could be sentenced to life in prison for a practice that is perfectly legal just 900 miles to the north in Denver.

In fact, if you search for "hash oil in Colorado" at least a dozen sites in Denver alone pop up immediately, each touting the quality and efficacy of its products. Dr. J's invites you to "Treat Yourself Daily!" with the doctor's hash oil-infused selection of chocolate bars, caramels and hard candies. Or you can take a vegetarian "Health Capsule" if you want to avoid the extra calories.

Since the recreational use of marijuana become legal in Colorado on Jan. 1, sales have exploded, topping $14 million in just the first month and providing $3.5 million in additional revenue for the state's coffers. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper expects taxes and fees from marijuana sales to amount to $134 million during first year, the first $40 million of which will go to school construction.

I don't have a position on whether all this is a good idea or on whether taxing marijuana sales is a seemly way to finance public education.

But something is terribly and ironically wrong when the only difference between healthy tax revenues from a profitable business like Dr. J's and the possibility that a 19-year-old kid could go to prison for life is a couple of state lines.

Here's another stunning dose of irony: The same edition of the newspaper that reported Jacob Lavoro's dilemma reported also on the opening of a new church in Fort Worth, Texas, a collaboration between Calvary Lutheran Church and Trinity Lutheran Church.

Their two pastors noted that young people are leaving the church "in droves." The pastors are sharing the pulpit at a "pub church," a weekly assembly — at about Happy Hour time — of the otherwise unchurched, who gather to "worship, chat and enjoy craft beer."

How do we make sense of a culture that's able to accommodate a church whose essential attraction is alcohol, a state that supports its public school system with the plentiful taxes levied on the sale of an intoxicating substance, and another state, only a short distance away, that puts its citizens in considerable jeopardy for doing something that will probably be legal before long?

I can't resolve the paradox. We should work on that, too. In the meantime, Jacob Lavoro's problem isn't theoretical or abstract. Life in prison, or even a long sentence, would be a staggering misapplication of justice.

John M. Crisp, a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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