Over the past week, prominent political figures from both sides of the aisle have suggested that marijuana prohibition is to blame for mass incarceration.
Former house of representatives speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said: “when you look at the number of people in our state and Federal prisons who are there for possession of small amounts of cannabis, you will start to really scratch your head. We literally filled up our prisons with people who are not dangerous, and frankly don’t belong there”. Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat from Hawaii, wrote on Twitter, “more than 2 million in prison, mostly black and brown, many for carrying small amounts of marijuana.”
The proposal, however, is wrong.
It’s true that a lot of people are arrested every year for marijuana. In 2016, about 600,000 people were arrested for simple possession of marijuana. These arrests on their own can create huge problems that leads to criminal records, which can make it more difficult to obtain employment, housing or financial aid for College.
But these arrests are only a small part of the problem of America’s mass imprisonment.
First, most people in prison or in jail on charges not related to drugs at all. According to the prison policy initiative, about 21 percent of people in jail or prison are there for drug crime, including possession of marijuana. Therefore, the vast majority of people do not go to prison because of drugs. And, contrary to Boehner on non-violent offenders, about 42 percent of people in prison or jail for serious crimes — committing a violent crime, one of the main drivers of deprivation of liberty of all categories of offense.
How many of the 21 per cent of perpetrators of drug crimes for marijuana possession?
Sorry, we have no accurate data jails where people are held before they are convicted of crime and for shorter sentences.
We also do not have sufficient information to state prisons, where more than 87 percent of American prisoners held on the basis of Federal data. But we know that a minority of state prisoners for drugs: in 2015, 3.4% of all state prisoners for drug possession and 11.7 percent were for other drug offences. Therefore, only the part of the prisoners are locked up because of drug prohibition in General, much less the prohibition of marijuana in particular.
We have good data for the Federal system. According to the US Commission of punishment, 92 of about 20,000 people — less than half a percent convicted of drug offenses during the 2017 financial year, was locked up for simple possession of marijuana. And cases related to drugs amounted to less than a third of the cases registered by the Commission of the sentence this year. Not all of these people were sentenced to prison; some instead received a suspended sentence.
After the Federal system is focused more on drug trafficking than the state system, it’s not really possible to extrapolate a Federal offer in state prisons.
Based on the data that we have, although it is fair to say that marijuana prohibition and the drug war more broadly — is not a major factor in the mass imprisonment.
More on these topics, read VOX explainers on mass incarceration and legalization of marijuana.