The number of people in federal prison for a cannabis-related offense dropped 61% over a five-year period, according to a new report from the Department of Justice. The number of inmates imprisoned for all drug offenses fell by 24%, the report from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found, with those incarcerated for a cannabis offense showing the steepest decline of prisoners in the federal penal system held for a drug-related offense. Despite the drop, however, Dr. Alexis Piquero, director of BJS, noted that a large share of federal incarceration is fueled by the War on Drugs.
“Although the number of people in federal prison for drug offenses decreased over this 5-year span, they still accounted for a large share—almost half—of the people in BOP custody in 2018,” Piquero said in a press release about the new report, which was released on July 10. “At the same time, we saw differences by the type of drug involved, with more people incarcerated for heroin and methamphetamines and fewer for marijuana and cocaine.”
The report provides information on the sentences of persons in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at the end of each fiscal year from 2013 to 2018. At the end of 2018, approximately 47% (71,555) of those in custody were sentenced for drug offenses. In addition to the 61% drop in federal cannabis prisoners, the report showed a reduction in the number of persons imprisoned on charges for other drugs, including crack cocaine (down 45%), powder cocaine (a 35% drop), and opioids (down 4%). The report also revealed an increase in the number of individuals behind bars for offenses related to other drugs, including a 13% increase for heroin and a 12% rise for methamphetamine. Nearly all of those in federal prison for drug offenses were convicted of charges related to trafficking, with only a small number incarcerated for simple possession.
Since 2012, federal policy changes related to both US sentencing guidelines and the use of mandatory minimum penalties have affected persons held in BOP facilities for drug offenses. During the five-year period examined by the study, there was a 33% decrease in the number of people in federal prison who, because of the type and quantity of drugs involved in their offense, faced the possibility of mandatory minimum penalties at sentencing. A similar 26% reduction was observed in the number of individuals who ultimately received penalties, while the number of defendants who received relief from penalties fell by 52%.
Decline In Federal Cannabis Prisoners Applauded
The DOJ report was welcomed by marijuana policy reform advocates and representatives of the regulated cannabis industry. But many noted that there is still much more work to be done. Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel at the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit working to secure the release of all cannabis prisoners, acknowledged that the Justice Department report is good news, but she said it does not tell the complete story of marijuana-related incarceration in the United States.
“While it shows significant progress to see a steady decrease in the number of individuals incarcerated for cannabis federally, the vast majority of cannabis sentences occur at the state level,” Gersten said in a statement to Cannabis Now. “Individuals are still incarcerated, often for decades-long sentences, for the same activity others can now freely profit from. We must ensure that we are not just proactively eliminating criminal penalties for cannabis and preventing new arrests, but also providing retroactive relief for those currently incarcerated.”
Brian Vicente a founding partner of the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente LLP and one of the authors of Colorado’s recreational marijuana legalization initiative, said that the “DOJ report shows the remarkable progress our country is making toward ending cannabis prohibition.”
“When Colorado voted to legalize cannabis in 2012, I and the other lead proponents hoped that changing state law would lead to the federal government taking note and following suit,” Vicente wrote in an email. “Ten years later, this report is real proof that legalizing at the state level can help dismantle federal prohibition, as well.”
David Craig, the vice president of marketing at Illicit Gardens, a cannabis cultivator and processor licensed to operate in Missouri, said that “No one should be locked away for non-violent cannabis charges while others are profiting.”
“The hypocrisy in cannabis sentencing propagates the disproportionate penalties given to minorities who have been marginalized by the system,” Craig said in a statement. “While Illicit respects the importance of regulating the cannabis industry to ensure product safety for end consumers, we won’t stop fighting for criminal justice reform until every state’s penal code reflects these new cannabis norms.”