In Montana, Smoking Reefer Yields Harsher Sentence than Sexual Assault. What?

Published on The Daily Femme – Friday, April 8, 2011

Contributed by Annamarya

Earlier in March, the Montana House of Representatives passed a bill, in an 89-10 vote, to increase the penalty for sexual assaults. As the law stands now, sex offenders receive a fine up to $500 and can be sentenced to up to six months in jail. Under this new bill, introduced by Senator Taylor Brown, penalties would double for second-time offenders, with a third offense yielding a five-year sentence and a $100,000 fine.

On the face of it, this seems like a much-needed improvement. As Representative Cary Smith (R-Billings) was quoted as saying, the current law regarding sexual assault is inconsistent with other statutes, like partner family member assault and drunk driving– both of which carry a five-year sentence for felony third offenses, cruelty to animals, stalking, and violating orders for protection, which have increased penalties. However, as an April 4 article on Alternet notes, this new bill passed by Montana’s House is not as harsh as it should be when compared to current laws regarding the possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana.

Case in point: according to Alternet, 27-year-old Matthew Otto was found guilty in late March of a single charge of “criminal distribution of dangerous drugs”, and could face a max sentence of life in prison and a fine of $50,000. The dangerous drug? Three grams of medical marijuana, which Otto stood accused of sharing with two friends in a car while driving down a street and passing a detective on his way home from work last November. Under current law, the sale of any amount of marijuana is considered a felony and can yield a year to life in prison, with possession of 60g or less yielding six months for the first offense and three years for the second. Possess more than 60g and you’re facing 20 years in prison. And if you’re caught cultivating a pound or less, you could face 10 years in prison. The fines for possession, cultivation and sale range from $100 to $50,000 or more for subsequent offenses when dealing with possession.

In a way, I’m not surprised that Montana would have such misplaced priorities as far as their laws are concerned. After all, its Senate did pass Bill 176, which was aimed to strip insurance coverage of abortion (luckily for Montanans, Governor Brian Schweitzer recently vetoed that bill, calling it a violation of the state’s constitutional right to privacy and access to reproductive health care). It’s also the same Senate that’s endorsing a bill to “revamp” school policies on sex education. That House-passed measure would require schools to send advanced notification of sex education to parents, receive their written consent before their child takes the class, and allow them to remove their children from the sex education class without penalty for missing the course. Additionally, it would bar schools from using course material from organizations that provide abortion services.

Despite my lack of surprise, I am nevertheless dumbfounded. It’s not to say there isn’t any danger in driving under the influence of drugs, whether it’s marijuana or alcohol. Clearly, an impairment of any kind can cloud judgment and put the driver, passengers and pedestrians in a deadly situation. If anything, Otto should have been convicted for that offense (DUI), rather than for mere consumption because, in the end,the act  smoking a little reefer alone doesn’t harm anyone.

But the real issue isn’t the charge as much as the disparity in the laws. Sexual assault is so much more violent and violating than consuming marijuana. It’s so much more destructive and harming, leaving the victim with a lifetime of psychological (and potentially physical) scars that, no matter the amount of help, will never fully heal. So why wouldn’t a first offense of sexual assault carry a heavier, harsher sentence than what Otto is facing? The only ones who would benefit from this new sexual assault bill are the sex offenders, while the victims will have to suffer with years and years of pain. Yet, people like Otto will have to spend their lives in prison and waste tax paying money for smoking less than an ounce of pot. Does that make sense to anyone?

AlterNet: Man Could Face Life in Prison for 3 Grams of Marijuana, While Sex Offenders May Get 5 Years Tops

KXLH: MT House passes bill increasing penalty for sex assaults

Missoulian: Missoula jury convicts man for sharing 3 grams of medical marijuana


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