CONTACT Data do not support claims U.S. prisons, jails filled with marijuana users

When discussing marijuana and THC, we often hear people express support for the drug’s legalization because they believe doing so would unclog American jails and prisons.

That pervasive belief is just not supported by local, state and federal public records — as The Washington Post explained well last week when it awarded former United States Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, “four Pinocchios” after he claimed the country has filled up its state and federal penitentiaries and jails with people who possessed “small amounts of cannabis.” (It’s certainly worth noting Mr. Boehner recently announced he joined the advisory board of a multi-state cannabis company and that his views about cannabis have “evolved” to support legalization.)

Some interesting facts from The Post’s takedown of Mr. Boehner’s bogus claim — and related facts from this editorial I wrote on the same subject for The (Colorado Springs) Gazette’s Editorial Board:

– The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that nearly 600,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession annually — but an arrest could mean what amounts to a ticket and a fine. An “arrest” is not necessarily an encounter with law enforcement that involves an officer’s use of handcuffs or a trip to a jail, much less time in a cell or a prison sentence.

– Only 3.4 percent of prisoners were in state correctional facilities for all types of drug possession as of Dec. 31, 2015, according to the Justice Department. Approximately 54.5 percent are in prison for violent crimes, such as murder, rape and robbery, and 18 percent involve property crimes; another 11.6 percent are in prison for public order offenses.

– In the federal system, the number of prisoners for reasons related to marijuana possession is “astonishingly low.” Only 92 people — yes, 92 — in 2017 were sentenced for marijuana possession out of almost 20,000 drug convictions, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That is one-half of 1 percent of drug convictions — and even then, it’s worth asking how much these 92 people possessed. If a report the Sentencing Commission released in 2011 is consistent, the answer is, “a lot.” That year, the federal government convicted only 48 marijuana offenders who possessed less than 5,000 grams of marijuana. The average amount possessed was 3,800 grams — the equivalent of about 9,000 joints, or marijuana cigarettes.

– Possession charges are typically levied in conjunction with charges for more serious crimes, usually drug trafficking, and often the result of plea bargaining down from more serious charges.

We invite you to read the full Washington Post report for more information.

About Christine Tatum

Christine Tatum is a veteran journalist whose communications and market intel firm, Media Salad, Inc., helps companies and nonprofit organizations win business and stay ahead of their competitors. Her professional stops include the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, the (Arlington Heights, Ill.) Daily Herald and the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record. Her work also has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and New York Times.

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