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Life Without Parole for Pot? 10 Worst Cases of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Our government spends more than $7 billion annually to enforce marijuana prohibition in shockingly cruel ways, but the efforts have not deterred marijuana use.

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Cannabis is one of the most innocuous substances known to humans. Safer than Advil, a little (or a lot) of weed has never killed anybody, nor is it known to induce the kind of violent behavior linked to, say, alcohol. What's more, marijuana shows great therapeutic promise. It has been proven to reduce nausea associated with several ailments and chemotherapy, help cure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), slow the progression of multiple sclerosis, and protect eyesight from glaucoma, among other medical benefits.

The side-effects of pot are minimal, especially when compared to legal, often lethal drugs like OxyContin or Xanax. The consequences of a marijuana arrest, however, can be far more damaging than the drug itself.

America’s legal system continues to treat the plant as if the 1920s propaganda film  Reefer Madness were true. In the United States -- where a marijuana arrest occurs every 42 seconds, on average -- the war on pot has disastrous consequences for its victims. Here are 10 of the most shameful examples in which the crime – related to weed -- does not even come close to matching the punishment.

1. 55 Years in Prison for $350 of Pot

Before he got busted, Weldon Angelos was a 25-year-old record producer who appeared to be on the road to stardom. Founder of the Utah-based rap label Extravagant Records, Angelos had collaborated with big names like Snoop Dogg. He had a strong future ahead of him, but now he will rot in jail until he is 80 years old, because three marijuana sales to undercover cops, worth a total of $350, got him a 55-year sentence with no chance of parole.

As Judge Paul G. Cassell pointed out, Angelos got more time than he would have for hijacking an airplane (25 years), beating someone to death in a fight (13 years), or raping a 10-year-old child (11 years). Making matters worse, the father of two didn’t even have a criminal record: he was a first time-offender.

Mandatory minimums for drug felonies involving a gun, however, stacked up to make Angelos’ weed bust a near life sentence.  Angelos never used or brandished his two weapons, but because the police said they saw them -- in his center console and strapped to his ankle -- he received one five-year and two consecutive 25-year sentences.

Judge Cassell was outraged at Angelos’ mandatory sentence, calling it "unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” He urged President Bush to commute Angelos’ sentence to 18 years or less, and 29 former judges and prosecutors filed a "friend-of-the-court" brief imploring Angelos’ sentencing judge to declare the sentence unconstitutional. Unfortunately, none of those efforts were successful.

2. Cops Pose as High-Schoolers and Ruin Kids' Lives

Last year, undercover police officers posed as students in three Florida high schools. The cops behaved as normal teenagers would, going to classes, making Facebook connections and flirting with other students.

They were good at it, and one 18-year-old honor student named Justin fell in love with the cop who busted him. The attractive, 25-year-old undercover female officer spent weekends with the teenager, and the two acted as any crushing youngsters would -- sharing stories, texting and flirting. They were building a relationship, and Justin wanted to make his new girl happy.

So when the undercover cop told Justin how much she loved weed, and begged him for a connect, Justin relented, even though he didn’t smoke himself. He refused the $25 his crush tried to give him, and told her the pot was a gift. When the sting operation came down, police arrested Justin along with 31 other students, and charged him with distribution. If Justin is convicted of the felony sale, he can say good-bye to financial aid and watch his future deteriorate. Talk about a twisted relationship.

3. Life Sentence for Medication

Chris Diaz, 22, suffers from life-threatening asthma. Five years ago, he moved from Texas to California to pursue alternative treatments, and got himself a medical pot card. The treatment was working, he says. In fact, everything was going well until two years ago, when a visit to Diaz’ dying grandmother threatened to send him to jail for life.

The Texas highway patrol pulled over Diaz for expired plates, searched the car and found 14 grams of weed and hash.  Because of Texas' harsh hash laws, Diaz faced up to 99 years in prison for intent to sell. After nine months behind bars, including 111 days in solitary confinement, without mail, phone calls or any human contact whatsoever, his public defender came to offer him a plea deal. Terrified of a life sentence, Diaz pled no-contest to face three, instead of 99 years, behind bars. He also gave up his right to appeal.

Now, Diaz is fighting to convince legal authorities that the plea deal was coerced, and to remove the felony conviction that could haunt him for life. In the meantime, he waits in prison, unable to access his medication.

4. Snatching the Weed-Grower’s Children

While there is no law preventing parents from using dangerous substances like alcohol or prescription pills, smoking pot can get their kids taken away and thrown into foster care.

An especially egregious example of state-sanctioned baby-snatching happened last year in California. On September 29, 2011, the Butte Interagency Narcotic Task Force (BINTF) forcefully entered the home of Daisy Bram and her husband Jayme Wals. Bram says masked, armed officers violently ripped her three-week-old infant from her arms, and took her 15-month-old son into custody as well. In audio of the raid, Bram is heard screaming and crying, saying she needs to breastfeed her hungry infant. “He needs to eat now. He’s a newborn,” she pleads with officers. Bram and Wals had to wait four months until Child Protective Services returned their kids from foster care.

According to reports, police raided their 38-plant garden and seized another 56 plants from inside their home. The bust came just three weeks after agents conducted a “compliance check,” ensuring that the couple, who are medical marijuana patients, were following the legal guidelines to grow pot. Bram says officials assured them that everything was fine. Regardless, Bram and Wals were later charged with eight felonies for marijuana and child abuse.