Cannabis Charges Put How Many US Citizens In Prison?
Cannabis charges and incarcerations are significant enough to warrant your attention.
In a recent debate, aspiring presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke spoke about the number of Americans imprisoned on cannabis charges:
“You have 2.3 million of our fellow Americans behind bars — it’s the largest prison population on the face of the planet. Many are there for nonviolent drug crimes including possession of marijuana at a time that more than half the states have legalized or decriminalized it.”
However, according to the Washington Post’s page where they fact-checked claims made in the Democratic presidential nomination debate, O’Rourke is missing part of the picture.
47.5% of Federal Prisoners Locked Up for Drug Offenses
It’s certainly true that the U.S. has the world’s biggest prison population. The International Centre for Prison Studies found that, in November 2018, 2.1 million Americans were incarcerated.
Among federal prisoners, around 47.5% – or about 81,900 – were locked up with a drug offense as their most serious crime. However, this figure includes all drug offenses. The Bureau of Justice Statistics gives the figure of 99% of federal drug offenders being sentenced for trafficking.
Furthermore, the U.S. Sentencing Commission finds that only 92 out of 20,000 prisoners with federal drug charges in 2017 saw convictions on cannabis charges for possession. That’s around 0.5%. However, 2,730 people went down for cannabis trafficking. That’s a little under 14% of all federal drug trafficking charges. Trafficking charges require prosecutors to prove that the person sold, transported, imported, or intended to sell drugs.
Figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that just 3.4% of prisoners nationwide were locked up for drug possession, and cannabis figures are likely to be lower.
In 2012, about 40,000 inmates total, both state and federal, saw imprisonment for a conviction involving cannabis charges. These figures make it pretty clear that, even if every person in prison for cannabis offenses saw release tomorrow, it wouldn’t make a dent in the United States’ mass incarceration problem.
However, reducing this issue down to statistics does a grave disservice to those arrested and incarcerated on non-violent drug charges.
$3.6 Billion Dollars Per Year Spent on Cannabis Enforcement
According to the ACLU, there were 8.2 million cannabis arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% of which were for simple possession. In 2010, cannabis arrests took place every 37 seconds. The figures also show a big racial bias – black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis despite white people being more likely to consume cannabis. In Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and D.C., black people were 8.5 times more likely to have cannabis possession arrests.
Every arrest means a criminal record. Criminal records can be devastating for people’s life chances, making it more difficult to get a job or obtain credit. Add social stigma, and it’s readily apparent that you don’t have to be in prison for cannabis possession to ruin your life.
Beyond the costs to individuals, the price tag of arresting so many is significant. The cost in lost job opportunities for arrestees is near-impossible to calculate. However, thanks to the ACLU, we know that states waste $3,613,969,972 on enforcing cannabis law annually – that’s 3.6 billion dollars.
Based on average salaries, $3.6 billion could pay for around 54,000 additional police officers nationwide. That alone could reverse the decline in officer numbers seen since 2008. Those additional officers could spend their time on serious and violent crimes, like robberies and assaults. For example, in 2013, police in New York City spent about 100,000 hours per year on cannabis arrests. Extrapolated nationwide, we’re looking at many millions of wasted police hours.
One Is Too Many
Politicians should be careful about the figures they drop. Pithy statistics might make for a good vote winner. However, muddying the waters of the conversation does not help the people whose lives are going to ruin every year. Especially over cannabis charges and arrests for possession.
This is a complex topic. It take an expert hundreds of hours of research to understand the full picture. The incalculable human cost of America’s drug laws is the real issue here.
After nearly five decades of aggressive enforcement and over $1 trillion spent, the War on Drugs has done little to prevent U.S. drug consumption. The opioid epidemic – largely driven by legal prescriptions of opioids by doctors – is still going strong.
While O’Rourke might not have painted the full picture, he was on the right track.
Given the demonstrable ineffectiveness of America’s drug war, arresting and locking people up over drugs crimes – especially cannabis – is nothing less than an exercise in tyranny. It’s about time that politicians recognize this and stop skirting around the issue by talking about “nonviolent drug crimes.”