When Rich Homie Quan, 27, was detained and then arrested at a police checkpoint for having guns and drugs in his car late last month while on his way to a concert in Wadley, Georgia, many observers were shocked to learn that the “Type of Way” rapper faces up to 30 years just for possession of weed (the gun charges were dropped).
This is not Quan’s first brush with the law. Back in 2011, the then 21-year-old was arrested and sentenced to 15 months for burglary in DeKalb County. In 2015 he was arrested for allegedly beating up a nightclub bouncer, though that case was eventually settled before going to trial.
Officials in Jefferson County have not yet said how much marijuana Quan was arrested with, but they’re charging him with felony possession with intent to distribute.That traffic stop put Quan—born Dequantes Devontay Lamar—at the crossroads of many complicated forces, on the state and federal level.
Nicole D. Porter, the Director of Advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization for criminal justice reform, explained the situation to Complex.
“State sentencing codes are incredibly complex,” she said, citing the disproportionate amount of power that prosecutors wield when determining what an individual maybe charged with. “It is common for there to be an indeterminate range of years for an indeterminate amount of offenses and for the maximum penalty to be a high number of years.”
In Georgia, you get charged with felony possession if you have over an ounce of weed. Anything less is a misdemeanor, which can still nab you up to a year behind bars, plus a fine of $1,000 and possibly additional community service.
“The United States is a punitive country,” Porter said. “There are a lot of offenses that can trigger a life-in-prison term, including felony drug offenses, like felony possession with intent to distribute in Georgia. Even if [Quan] has a really great attorney who is able to get him a great sentence, it would not surprise me if, in Georgia, he was on felony probation for the rest of his life. If he isn’t already on felony probation. And because he’s on felony probation for the rest of his life, all of his civil rights would be severely diminished.” (The ways in which drug laws have impacted the civil rights of black men and women in this country is the subject of Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary, 13th.)
The line dividing a felony possession charge, which carries a still significant but much less serious sentence, from intent to distribute—which Quan is facing—is muddy. It’s up to the cops to decide if you have in your possession more than a “reasonable amount for personal consumption.” Other factors can also come into play: if you’re in a car, if you have plastic bags or a scale, or if you’re carrying a lot of cash, for example.
Jefferson County, where Quan was arrested, is tiny—fewer than 17,000 residents as of 2010. And it is in those small cities and towns, Porter explains, that racial bias often comes into the picture.
“Georgia has one of the highest rates of felony probation in the country, and a lot of that’s about race,” she says. “Particularly in the small cities and towns outside of Atlanta, the racial politics of law enforcement would be cartoonish if it wasn’t so horrendous and horrific.”
Tom McCain agrees. The former Deputy Sheriff of Johnson County, Georgia is now the Executive Director of Peachtree NORML, the state branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He told Complex that in Georgia, African-American men are 3.7 times more likely than white men to be busted for weed.
“We have some of the most Draconian laws in the nation about marijuana,” he said. “We’ve got a ‘weed warrior’ mentality in a lot of the cops.”
But even in Georgia, times are changing—albeit slowly. A bill that would make possession of 10 grams or less a ticketable, rather than arrestable, offense has been slowly winding its way through the state Senate, and McCain is working on getting a similar bill in the House.
“Attitudes in the legislature are starting to change,” he said. “Three years ago this wouldn’t have happened, period. We wouldn’t have been able to even discuss this. So we’re making progress.”
In addition, several towns like Atlanta, Clarkston, and Temple have either seriously debated changing, or have actually changed, their laws around marijuana. And Georgia, somewhat surprisingly, has a limited (though expanding) medical marijuana program.
This is in line with changes happening nationally. Twenty-nine states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Guam all allow for some form of medical marijuana. Racist enforcement of drug laws has become a national issue.
However, in the Trump era, there is backlash. New Attorney General Jeff Sessions is staunchly anti-marijuana, and the already-murky relationship between liberal state laws and tougher national ones may soon be getting a whole lot murkier.
Legal changes of any sort, though, are likely to come too late for Quan. However, McCain said the rapper is almost certainly not going to get the maximum sentence.
“If this was his first offense, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to hand out a 30-year sentence,” he said. “It’s probably going to wind up with a heavy fine, some probation time, and that’ll be about the end of it.”
As for Quan’s earlier brushes with the law, McCain said the prosecution is likely to bring up them if the case goes to trial, to establish what he referred to as “prior bad acts.” We can only hope that, if this goes to trial, the judge moves in the direction the nation is moving, and acts leniently.