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How Many People Are in Federal Prison for Marijuana Possession?

Marijuana has been illegal at the federal level in the United States since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. However, public attitudes towards marijuana have shifted considerably in recent decades, with a majority of Americans now supporting marijuana legalization. This has prompted questions around how many people are currently incarcerated at the federal level for marijuana offenses, particularly simple possession.

A Brief History of Marijuana Prohibition

The prohibition of marijuana in the U.S. originated in the early 20th century. Here is a brief overview of key events:

  • 1914 – The Harrison Act banned the use of cocaine and opioids for non-medical purposes at the federal level. This marked an early effort to regulate recreational drugs.
  • 1930s – The federal government began advocating for marijuana prohibition. This was influenced by negative perceptions of the drug promoted by Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
  • 1937 – The Marihuana Tax Act effectively banned possession and sale of marijuana at the federal level.
  • 1970 – The Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug with high potential for abuse and no medical value, alongside drugs like heroin.
  • 1996 – California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Other states soon followed.
  • 2012 – Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Marijuana remains fully illegal at the federal level.

This history has led to the present situation where marijuana possession can still result in criminal penalties at the federal level. However, the majority of marijuana enforcement happens at the state level.

Marijuana Enforcement by the Numbers

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, there were 92,898 federal drug convictions in fiscal year 2020. This number has been declining in recent years. Only around 3% of these convictions were for marijuana possession. Here are some key stats:

  • 92,898 total federal drug convictions in 2020
  • 71,318 drug trafficking convictions
  • 13,760 possession convictions
  • 392 marijuana possession convictions
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This shows that a relatively small portion of federal drug convictions are for marijuana possession specifically. Trafficking offenses make up the majority.

The number of federal marijuana possession convictions has also declined over the past decade:

YearMarijuana Possession Convictions
2020392
2019432
2018510
2017656
2016728
2015840
2014953
20131,043

Breakdown by Citizenship

Looking deeper into the 2020 convictions for marijuana possession:

  • 352 were U.S. citizens
  • 40 were non-citizens

So the vast majority were American citizens, despite myths aboutforeign drug traffickers.

Sentencing Data

The mean sentence length for federal marijuana convictions in 2020 was 28 months. The median was 15 months. This indicates some high outliers with lengthy sentences.

61% of those convicted received sentences of 2 years or less.

  • 41% received 1 year or less
  • 20% received 1 to 2 years

So while some marijuana possession charges still result in multi-year sentences, most federal cases receive relatively short sentences.

Why Aren’t More People Incarcerated for Marijuana?

Given marijuana’s ongoing federally illegal status, some may wonder why there aren’t higher numbers incarcerated for marijuana possession nationwide. There are a few key reasons for this:

  • State legalization – 15 states plus Washington DC have fully legalized marijuana. In these jurisdictions, marijuana-related arrests have plummeted. Even in states with only medical marijuana, enforcement is down.
  • Prosecutorial discretion – Federal prosecutors have significant discretion in bringing charges. With shifting attitudes towards marijuana, many federal prosecutors decline marijuana cases unless trafficking is involved.
  • Obama-era policy changes – The Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to make marijuana cases a low priority. The Trump administration did not actively reverse this policy.
  • Short sentences – As seen in the stats above, most federal marijuana possession charges still pursued result in sentences under 2 years. With good behavior, actual time served is even less.

So while federal law allows charges for marijuana possession, practical exercise of prosecutorial discretion and short sentences keep incarceration numbers low.

Are There People Serving Long Sentences for Marijuana?

Given changes in policies and attitudes, who is currently serving long federal sentences for marijuana possession?

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There are certainly some outliers still incarcerated with lengthy sentences, such as:

  • Pedro Moreno – Serving a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence from the 1990s for a marijuana trafficking conspiracy. Advocates argue he played just a minor role.
  • Lee Carroll Brooker – An Alabama veteran sentenced to life in prison under a habitual offender law for marijuana possession in 2011. He is ineligible for parole.
  • Corvain Cooper – Serving a life sentence without parole for non-violent marijuana offenses under California’s three strikes law. Now seeking clemency.

However, these kinds of severe sentences have become less common in recent years. Life or 20+ year sentences for marijuana alone are increasingly rare.

Advocates for marijuana policy reform argue that past harsh federal sentences for marijuana disproportionately impacted certain communities and should be revisited. That remains an active debate.

Could Marijuana Prisoners Be Freed?

With federal marijuana legalization proposals on the table, could those incarcerated for marijuana be released?

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act proposed in Congress would:

  • Remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act
  • Expunge federal marijuana convictions
  • Allow resentencing hearings for federal marijuana prisoners

This Act could provide a path for freeing some federal marijuana prisoners. However, since most marijuana enforcement happens at the state level, the impact would be limited.

State-level expungement and resentencing policies would be needed to more broadly release marijuana prisoners nationwide.

For example, after legalizing marijuana, California passed laws allowing retrial or release for many marijuana offenders. But fixing past injustices state-by-state remains a slow process.

How Do Federal Marijuana Prisoners Feel About Their Sentences?

Firsthand perspectives from federal marijuana prisoners help illustrate the complicated human impacts of incarceration:

“I was sentenced to 20 years for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. The judge knew I played a minor role but his hands were tied with mandatory minimums. My kids grew up without a father, which pains me the most.”

“I was only 18 when I was arrested for mailing marijuana across state lines. I’m now serving a 10 year sentence, missing my best years. The system is broken.”

“I have no regrets about the cannabis dispensary I started in legalized California. But due to outdated federal laws, I’m now stuck in prison separated from everyone I love.”

These stories suggest a need for reform, even if total prisoner numbers are relatively low. Many argue excessively long sentences have ruined lives and families for minor marijuana offenses.

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FAQ

How many people are serving life sentences for marijuana?

Precise recent numbers are unavailable, but likely no more than a few hundred nationwide. With marijuana legalization, life sentences fell out of favor except in extreme cases. However, some offenders were given life sentences under habitual offender laws years ago and remain incarcerated.

Who is eligible for federal marijuana clemency?

The Obama administration pledged to consider clemency petitions from federal marijuana prisoners who met certain criteria: already served 10+ years, nonviolent record, absence of gang ties, no firearm conviction, low level role. But only a fraction of petitioners received clemency before Obama’s term ended.

What are federal prisons like for marijuana offenders?

Experiences vary, but federal prisons generally house more serious violent offenders than state prisons. Low-level marijuana offenders often report traumatic experiences and safety fears in this harsh environment. This contributes to calls for reducing marijuana sentences or alternatives to incarceration.

What percentage of federal drug prisoners are incarcerated for marijuana?

Based on 2020 data, approximately 3.9% of sentenced federal drug offenders were incarcerated for marijuana possession, with around 2.8% for marijuana trafficking. This indicates marijuana offenders make up a small fraction of the federal prison population.

Could all federal marijuana prisoners be released by Biden?

No. Blanket marijuana amnesty at the federal level would face legal barriers and political pushback. However, Biden could expand clemency grants for marijuana offenders on a case-by-case basis. He could also direct prosecutors to deprioritize marijuana cases. But mass marijuana prisoner releases remain unlikely due to practical constraints.

Conclusion

How many federal marijuana prisoners are there in the United States? The data indicates the number is relatively small and declining – likely a few hundred incarcerated for possession. While excessive past sentences have drawn outrage, current marijuana enforcement patterns keep federal imprisonment numbers low.

Full legalization could bring opportunities for resentencing or release. But the total federal prison population relief would be modest. Untangling the past injustices of marijuana prohibition remains a state-by-state challenge, even as overall legal reforms steadily advance.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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