Do We Lock Up Pot Smokers?

A reader writes:

Your reader may be right in arguing that very few state and federal prisoners are sent to prison because of possession. But the statistics he quotes fail to take into account jail inmates, who make up the vast, vast majority of individuals cycling into and out of the correctional system each year. Of the over 10 million individuals in a correctional facility at any given point in a year, roughly 9 million are individuals in jail for just weeks or months at a time. The Bureau of Justice Statistics your reader quotes are for state and federal prisoners with sentences of one year or longer.

The appropriate figure is the percentage of jail inmates arrested on drug possession, which the BJS estimates (2002 is the last year for which I can find good data) at 10%. That's 10% of about 650,000 inmates - 65,000 individuals on possession. E.D. Kain was a lot closer to the truth than your reader let on. Fact-checking, indeed.

Another writes:

Between 1997 and 2007, police arrested and jailed about 205,000 blacks,122,000 Latinos, and 59,000 whites for possessing small amounts of marijuana in NYC. Blacks accounted for about 52% of the arrests, though they represented only 26% of the city’s population over that time span. Latinos accounted for 31% of the arrests but 27% of the population. Whites represented only 15% of those arrested, despite comprising 35% of the population. Reason discusses the study here.


I'd love to invite your reader down to New Orleans.

While someone might not be sentenced to any real jail time for getting caught with a joint, they are often arrested and put in parish or county jail until they can be bailed out (or not, in NOLA's case). So if you miss your shift, or if your employer finds out you've been arrested, you're screwed. Only recently has our DA begun issuing citations to settle marijuana cases in municipal instead of criminal court. But all around America you are going to get arrested for a joint. And even if you're sentenced to community service instead of hard time, drug policy still has incredibly deleterious effects on society, especially those who are already vulnerable.


The fact is that an arrest and conviction of possession, even if it is a small amount, does make you unemployable and costs society a great deal of money. My son and his best friend are examples of that.

After Hurricane Ike, Houston had a curfew. They were out after the curfew and were stopped. The officer searched the vehicle and charged both with possession. Both were convicted and did their probation with no problem. However when my son went to apply for a job at WalMart they would not hire him because of the conviction.

If you are looking at how much the possession charges cost, you have to add the cost to book and incarcerate two men overnight. Then the cost to go to court. Then the cost of monitoring them while on probation. You also have to add that my son was unemployed for six months until he could find an employer that didn't do background checks. That's six months of taxes all government entities could use right now.


In Oklahoma, possession of any amount is punishable by a jail term of up to one year. Subsequent offenses of any amount are punishable by jail terms of 2-10 years. No "intent to distribute" required. First time offenders may see their sentence discharged to probation and a fine, but the subsequent charge guarantees time. First time offense is a misdemeanor, all other offenses, including the subsequent possession charges are felonies.

The dissenter may live in a state where simple possession *never* results in a jail term, but in Oklahoma it is quite common to find people locked up for it. This state has some of the toughest marijuana penalties in the US and takes pleasure enforcing them, and ranks 4th in the nation in persons per 100,000 currently imprisoned. Not all of us live in states like California or Montana.


Let's not forget about parolees.  In nearly every case, passing drug tests is a condition for maintaining parole.  And, obviously, any arrest of a parolee constitutes violation of the parole terms.  So it's disingenuous to claim that "nobody" goes to prison for possessing a joint.  Hell, possession isn't even a requirement; people go to jail quite often because of low levels of non-psychoactive cannabis metabolites present in their urine.  Sometimes for a very long period of time.