Who will be the last person incarcerated for marijuana in the US?

As voters decriminalize marijuana across the US, some states are still putting people in jail for marijuana offenses. What will it take to end the prohibition on pot?

Stephen Beacham Senior Video Producer
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Stephen Beacham
3 min read

To date, 19 states have voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Where's it's legal for recreation, marijuana production and distribution are making for a fast-growing, multibillion-dollar industry, providing tax revenue and jobs.

Meanwhile, 36 states and four territories have legalized pot for medical use, a number that overlaps to a degree with the recreational use tally -- so pot could be legal for some uses but not all -- and in two states and under federal law, cannabis is still completely illegal. What that means is you have to know state by state whether possessing marijuana can get you incarcerated. It's a confusing patchwork of laws and a legal minefield when you cross state lines, and the numbers continue to shift. 

How do we as a nation address this problem on the federal level and create a fair playing field for all?

Jason Flores-Williams is a Colorado-based attorney representing Jonathan Wall, a 25-year-old man awaiting trial for a marijuana-related charge in a Baltimore supermax prison. Wall faces up to 15 years for distributing cannabis that in other states is totally legal. Williams has been trying to raise awareness about these disparities in the US and is calling on the federal government to step in and end the prohibition on marijuana. 


Jonathan Wall is awaiting trial in 2022 for a marijuana related charge.

Jonathan Wall

"People in this country don't want weed to be illegal anymore -- it's done," he said. "And I think at this point, it's like some sort of government typo that the government hasn't gotten to yet. This little paperwork fix that they need to do with regard to ending federal prohibition on pot is costing people their lives."

The Biden administration has said that it will work to decriminalize marijuana and is promising to expunge past marijuana convictions. The administration has been mulling over whether this can be done with an executive order. 

Before being elected vice president, then-California Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a bill in 2019 to decriminalize marijuana. And as recently as June, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stated in a case, "A prohibition on interstate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government's piecemeal approach." 

So what will it take to make that happen?

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana, which would remove it from the Federal Controlled Substances List. The legislation is said to be a long shot without the support of Republicans in the Senate, but it's a promising start toward moving the country toward ending the prohibition on cannabis. 


Jason Flores-Williams is a civil rights attorney representing Jonathan Wall.

Jason Flores-Williams

"I think we're at that critical point where there's more money to be made in pot than there is in incarcerating people for pot," Williams said. "So the economic argument is simply going to win. This will create some jobs, this will get you elected, this will put more money into the tax coffers. This will have a beneficial impact. It's what the people want."

As states that have legalized marijuana rake in new tax revenue while creating millions of new jobs, other states are still spending money and resources to keep marijuana off the streets. Who are the entities that are against the legalization of marijuana and why are they doing so? What do they stand to gain from locking up young people for a plant that in another state, next door, is perfectly legal and easy to purchase? 

Williams blames what he calls a "prison industrial complex." Though they may not be actively lobbying against the legalization of pot, those interests still benefit from people being incarcerated.

"This is a country that never likes to admit that they're wrong, but this damn thing has been wrong all along," he said. "Weed has been legalized in states, it's created jobs, and people are doing fine. Society didn't break down. In fact, here in Colorado and Denver, there's been this green rush that has occurred."  

Watch the full interview with Jason Flores-Williams at CNET.com/NowWhat and let us know in the comments what you think. Are the laws outdated and should the federal government decriminalize cannabis across the nation, or is this a states rights issue that should be left up to the voters in each state to decide?