How many people are federal cannabis prisoners? The government just does not keep track of exactly of what offenses landed someone in federal prison. The relevant federal agency is the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and they do not provide the public with data on the criminal history of prisoners, not data on offense details or sentencing decisions. This makes it “difficult to assess the criminal background of the offenders and the nature of their offenses.”
For these reasons Sam Taxy, Julie Samuels and William Adams of the Urban Institute conducted a study of Drug Offenders in Federal Prison to estimate offender characteristics.
Their 2015 study used data regarding the federal prison population in 2012, along with sentencing information from the United States Sentencing Commission.
Most (99.5 percent) of the 94,678 drug offenders (all drug offenders, not just those for marijuana) included in the 2012 dataset were in prison for drug trafficking offenses, while some were incarcerated for possession and other drug offenses.
The major findings of the study had little to do with marijuana.
For more than half (54 percent) of the drug offenders in federal prison, the primary drug involved in their crime was cocaine. Blacks accounted for 88 percent of crack cocaine offenders, while Hispanics accounted for 54 percent of powder cocaine offenders. Whites accounted for 48 percent of methamphetamine offenders.
Just over a third of all drug offenders in federal prison (35 percent) had no prior criminal history.
About one-fourth (24 percent) of drug offenders in federal prison used a weapon in their offense.
The average prison sentence was more than 11 years.
Crack cocaine offenders were most likely to have an extensive criminal history (40 percent), used a weapon (32 percent) and received the longest prison term (170 months).
Where does marijuana fit into this?
Of the offenders in federal prison in 2012, the primary drug type of offense was crack cocaine for 28.4 percent of them, powder cocaine for 25.8 percent, methamphetamine for 23.7 percent and marijuana for 12.4 percent. Heroin accounted for 6.2 percent of federal drug offenders in prison, and 3.5 percent were in prison for other drugs, such as pharmaceuticals or MDMA.
So, in sheer numbers, there were 11,533 federal cannabis prisoners in 2012.
Almost all (93.6 percent) of the federal marijuana offenders were male.
In terms of race, 59 percent were Hispanic, 24 percent were white and 13.9 percent were Black. In terms of age, 1.9 percent were 18 to 19 years old, 25.7 percent were in their twenties, 35.9 percent were in their thirties and 40.6 percent were 40 or older. Also, 34.7 percent of federal cannabis prisoners were not U.S. citizens.
While 34.5 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison had no criminal history, this was true for 44.3 percent of marijuana offenders in federal prison. Marijuana offenders also had to lowest likelihood of having a gun involved in their offense, only 15.2 percent compared to 21.9 percent of powder cocaine offenders, 32 percent of crack cocaine offenders, 17.3 percent of heroin offenders and 25.5 percent of methamphetamine offenders.
Federal cannabis offenders also had the shortest prison sentences—on average, about seven years (88 months), with the most common sentence being five years (60 months).
According to the report “a majority of marijuana offenders received a sentence of more than 1 year up to and including 5 years in prison.”
For crack cocaine offenders, the average sentence was more than 14 years (170 months).
However, 25.8 percent of marijuana offenders had sentences of five to 10 years, 16.2 percent had sentences of 10 to 20 years and 5.8 percent had sentences of 20 years or more.
These federal cannabis prisoners are often the forgotten casualties of the War on Drugs, in general, and marijuana prohibition in particular.
The political debate over marijuana reform, whether in terms of decriminalization or legalization, is often focused on the users of cannabis and the injustice of jail terms for individual users with small amounts of marijuana.
Yet, the aggregate demand for cannabis created by tens of millions of users attracts people to the market. In the illegal market, marijuana use creates marijuana sales. The entrepreneurs who grow, distribute and sell cannabis are a diverse lot, some with appealing characteristics and others simply in the business to make money.
Like any business, the marijuana trade has its share of heroes and villains, a characterization that varies with someone’s point of view. The public condemns drug dealers. Marijuana users condemn profiteers.
But people’s opinions of the marijuana trade are irrelevant.
What is relevant is that marijuana use under prohibition creates a tremendous variety of costs, and one of them is the incarceration of ten to twelve thousand people in federal prison whose crime was succumbing to the profitable temptations created by federal prohibition laws.