Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate featured a question on marijuana legalization for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
While I was excited to finally hear the front-running Democrats address the issue of legalization, I was crestfallen when I watched them obliviously walk into one of legalization-opponent Kevin Sabet’s rhetorical traps.
“We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away,” Sanders said, “and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”
“We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana,” Clinton said. “Therefore, we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”
These statements were such rookie mistakes that I’m certain Kevin Sabet’s Project SAM will have a major press release about it, containing this info from their website.
By the time you’re reading this, PolitiFact has probably rated this claim “Mostly False.” Because despite how Sanders and Clinton have framed the message, the fact is that of the 2.4 million incarcerated in the U.S. federal and state prison population, those imprisoned for first-time, non-violent, marijuana-possession-only offenses is probably about 0.1 percent of the total.
Now, that fact is a bit distorted, to be sure.
Those numbers don’t count plenty of people whose marijuana offenses were non-violent, but may have included possession-with-intent-to-sell, conspiracy-to-sell, cultivation and manufacturing, or use of a firearm when it was never used and was just a personal hunting rifle, for instance. Some people serving time for what are considered big-time marijuana offenses were medical users (see: Kettle Falls Five).
The stats also don’t count people with prior criminal records caught for the first time with marijuana. They don’t count people who are serving probation for another crime, get caught smoking marijuana by a piss test, then get sent back to prison classified under their original crime, not pot.
Then there are the people who are serving time in prison who turned to crime because their prior marijuana conviction has made it difficult or impossible to get a job, housing or public assistance.
Regardless, when you talk about “not imprisoning young people for marijuana,” it is too easy for an opponent like Sabet to say, “Yes, I agree, so let’s establish marijuana decriminalization for personal possession with fines and mandatory rehab, and let’s end the practice of limiting employment and educational opportunities to folks with prior first-time marijuana convictions.”
It’s too easy for Sabet to point out the miniscule numbers of those imprisoned for marijuana and to show how most first-time offenders, even in some of the worst states for marijuana laws, end up with fines and probation.
The key for any candidate wishing to discuss marijuana legalization is to replace the word “imprison” with the word “punish.” Look at how using that word changes the framing of the argument:
“We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away,” Sanders said, “and yet we are punishing young people who are smoking marijuana.”
“We have got to stop punishing people who use marijuana,” Clinton said. “Therefore, we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a 25 million Americans risking punishment for using marijuana.”
With those kinds of statements, Kevin Sabet and other opponents are forced to defend why it is necessary to punish adults for using marijuana, rather than attack how Sanders and Clinton lied to the American people. Used properly, the punishing adults frame can be combined with the safer than alcohol frame to force the listener into cognitive dissonance—wait, we allow adults to use dangerous alcohol, but we punish them for safer marijuana?