For being caught with just over a quarter pound of pot, 54-year-old Henry Walter Wooten will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars, thanks to a jury in Tyler, Texas.
His prosecutor, Smith County Assistant District Attorney Richard Vance, originally sought a sentence of 99 years over the 4.6 ounces of marijuana police found in Wooten’s vehicle, according to published reports.
Wooten was reportedly caught smoking pot within 1,000 feet of a day care center, within the radius of a so-called “drug free zone.” Tipped off by the smell, police would later search the man’s vehicle, only to discover his cannabis stash and a digital scale, according to The Tyler Morning Telegraph.
Wooten, who was convicted of two felonies in the 1980s, was also accused of marijuana possession in a drug free zone in 2008, the paper noted. Drug free zones, or perimeters around schools, playgrounds, churches and other selected institutions or organizations, mandate significantly stronger penalties for anyone caught with illegal substances on the wrong side of the boundary. They were passed in the 1980s amid a surge in the popularity of “crack” cocaine, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was later found to have aided the distribution of.
The Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based thinktank, reported in 2006 that drug free zones have done little to enhance public health or safety and have instead disproportionately targeted minorities, according to the Associated Press.
“We just hope [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] can free up room for this menace to society; maybe the state can release a child molester or serial arsonist to find a cell for Wooten,” Houston Press scoffed in a Friday blog post.
“The fact is that most of you who are reading this article will probably believe that sentencing a person to prison for 35 years for the possession of a non-toxic, non-addicting, all natural substance that has proven anti-cancer capabilities is not really protecting society from anything dangerous,” opined a post on the Texas NORML forum. “He might have been stupid choosing his location to medicate, after all, it was Tyler, ‘Texas’, but nobody should spend a day in a steel cage for medicating, much less their entire life or 35 years.”
Wooten’s sentence is identical to the punishment dealt to Alejandro Arreola, who was given 35 years in jail by a jury in Del Rio, Texas for his involvement in a multimillion dollar marijuana smuggling ring. Arreola, according to reports, transported over 24 tons of the stuff into the United States. His accomplice, Casey Bob Hutto, got 24 years.
The U.S. State Department claimed earlier in March that Mexican marijuana cultivation escalated some 35 percent in 2009, while the Mexican military’s interdiction efforts decreased in the face of more dangerous substances like methamphetamine. Houston and the surrounding areas are well-known drug trafficking zones for the Mexican marijuana cartels and a significant portion of marijuana consumed in the state can be traced south of the border.
CORRECTION: The closest major metropolitan area to Tyler is Dallas/Fort Worth, not Houston. Modified from an original version.