The “war on drugs” has become a chief target for Democratic presidential hopefuls who use outsized rhetoric to say drug laws, particularly those regarding marijuana, are filling the nation’s prisons and jails with nonviolent offenders who shouldn’t be behind bars.
Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed “low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana,” while Sen. Bernard Sanders said states should consider legalizing marijuana out of fairness.
Wall Street CEOs aren’t held accountable, “and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana,” Mr. Sanders said.
There is only one problem with the rhetoric: It is factually wrong.
“The statement that the prison population is mostly low-level marijuana offenders is utterly totally bogus; there is not a shred of validity in it,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Mr. Caulkins said that while 20 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated for drug convictions, less than 10 percent of those are for marijuana. The other 90 percent deal with cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin violations.
“And of the marijuana violators, the people in prison for that reason in particular, they basically are never there for simple possession,” Mr. Caulkins said. “You can go to prison if you possess 5 tons of marijuana, but that’s not personal possession. Most of these offenders are there because they broke parole or were also charged with drug trafficking and production.”
Indeed, only 3.6 percent of state inmates in 2013 had drug possession as their most serious offense, according to official data from the Justice Department, and only about three-tenths of 1 percent of state prison inmates were there because of marijuana possession alone, according to the federal agency’s most recent data.
Although the population in state prisons has skyrocketed 363 percent from 1980 to 2009, making mass incarceration an issue for politicians, less than a quarter of that growth was a result of the imprisonment of drug offenders, said Fordham law professor John Pfaff, who studied the data.
More than half of the increase in prison populations are there because of violent crimes, he said.
“Violent crimes offenders serve long sentences and make up 55 percent of the prison population and about 60 percent of prison growth,” Mr. Pfaff said. “The percent of prisoners because of drug charges has actually dropped.”
Drug legalization advocates say that while marijuana may not affect the overall prison population, the number of arrests connected to the drug is staggering and does mean more Americans fall under the criminal justice system.
Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said the most recent FBI data show that of the roughly 700,000 arrests on marijuana-related charges in 2014, about 90 percent were for possession only, and these arrests can cause negative ripple effects in a person’s life.
“A lot of the candidates on both sides are being fairly genuine when they engage on these issues,” said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies marijuana policy. “Yes, linking mass incarceration to marijuana use is a bit beyond the evidence, but marijuana as a criminal justice issue is absolutely on point. We know that marijuana arrests are the entry point for young men of color into the criminal justice system — that’s how they get their record started.
“An arrest may not result in a long prison sentence or even any jail time at all, but it does create deferred economic opportunities, jobs not gotten for some small amounts of marijuana found on an individual,” Mr. Hudak said.
The issue is also popular with the electorate.
According to a Gallup poll released last month, 58 percent of Americans back legal marijuana use, the highest percentage support ever reported in a nationwide poll. Eight in 10 voters support the use of medical marijuana.
Since 1996, when California approved the use of medical marijuana, 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of legalized marijuana, and at least five more states are expected to have recreational marijuana use on the ballot next year.
Presidential candidates in both major parties have adopted marijuana as an issue. Many use mass incarceration, criminal justice, health care or states’ rights as ways to back up their positions.
“There’s been more dialogue in this presidential race about marijuana than any in history, and it reflects the changes that are taking place throughout our country,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group.
Mr. Tvert said candidates not too long ago would try to evade the issue, but some now are taking definitive stances.
His group has been ranking the 2016 presidential field in terms of their support of the issue.
“Bernie Sanders moved into the highest spot in our rankings after he said he would vote in favor to make the initiative legal. It’s the first time a major presidential candidate has ever expressed full-out support for ending marijuana prohibition,” Mr. Tvert said.
Mr. Sanders’ aggressive stance may have moved Mrs. Clinton on the issue.
Although Mrs. Clinton has long declined to endorse recreational or medical marijuana legalization at the federal level, this month she did join Mr. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the other major candidate in the nomination race, in saying she backs the use of medical marijuana and supports removing it from the list of Class 1 scheduled drugs.
Marijuana’s federal classification prevents federally funded studies of the drug and groups it in with the likes of cocaine and meth as one of the most dangerous substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I do support the use of medical marijuana,” Mrs. Clinton said in November in response to a question at a town hall meeting at Claflin University, a historically black school. “I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”
That’s a far cry from her husband’s famous acknowledgment on the 1992 campaign trail that he had tried marijuana but “didn’t like it and didn’t inhale,” and his opposition to California’s medical marijuana initiative in 1996, going as far as filing and winning a lawsuit to shut an Oakland cannabis dispensary in a case that reached the Supreme Court.
“If Bill Clinton would’ve admitted supporting any type of marijuana use back in the ‘90s, he would’ve lost the vote of people over the age of 55, so he couldn’t do it,” said Mr. St. Pierre of NORML.
“But we’ve seen a change of the guard. Baby boomers are changing the dynamic of how marijuana is viewed. The WWII generation never supported marijuana use — but it’s a night-and-day difference between generations, with most Americans now sick and tired of its prohibition,” he said.