The Greatest Harm for Cannabis Users: The U.S. Justice System

Let me ask you a very important question. What do you consider worse, doing ten to twenty in a federal penitentiary like New York’s Big House (Sing Sing), or being sentenced to some sordid state facility where you can bone up on your gladiatorial skills? Or trading a miserable prison term for a decrease in your ability to recall someone’s phone number?

I’ve just listed two of the harms from marijuana. One of the harms is a decrease in short-term memory called cognitive dysfunction. The other is being busted and ending up in the judicial system. Yet everyone seems to be ignoring the latter, like the half-wit uncle living in the crawlspace. But it is clearly the greatest harm that can occur from the use of cannabis.

It’s called pot prohibition. And it’s just like alcohol prohibition only worse.

Let’s be honest here. A run in with the judicial system is likely to destroy your life more than ANY side effect from marijuana. We’ll talk about this highly detrimental process today.

Dr Mitchell (from makes his best point when he remarks that:

Young people increasingly recognize that while alcohol and tobacco are legal, they are far more injurious to health than cannabis. In greatest danger for adolescents due to cannabis use comes from legal consequences secondary to prohibition.

Most of the professional community take it off the table, the notion that prison time is not part of the harms incurred from using recreational cannabis. But it certainly is. Everyone seems to forget that while some states in the US have relaxed their medieval penalties for possession of marijuana, many states have done little to alter their draconian punishments. It’s still a felony to grow any cannabis, even one plant in nearly every state. Several states will get you 10-30 years or more if you have a half-dozen plants in your house.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of people are still being arrested and put into cages for simple possession. Living in a 10 x 10 cell for ten years is clearly worse than cognitive dysfunction is it not?

From the NORML website:

Enforcing marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers an estimated $10 billion annually and results in the arrest of more than 693,000 individuals per year — far more than the total number of arrestees for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

A high school student arrested for possession of cannabis will have his student loan privileges revoked. That person can’t enter college without the ability to pay for it. That same person may never reach his full potential because he will have a criminal record. With that he may not be able to secure any number of government jobs. The private sector is worse if you have a record. He may even become a burden on society if he cannot secure a productive job. With a felony conviction the risk for failure increases substantially. Why would any government want to take a young, otherwise normal, kid and transform him into an ex-con burden on society? This is absurd to any rational thinker. Yet, this is exactly what has happened year after year for the last 7 decades.

It gets better. In the US there are an estimated 6,899,000 persons under the supervision of adult correctional systems at yearend 2013. Folks that’s nearly 7 million people! The numbers of incarcerated and paroled in the US are far more than China and Russia combined. Let’s examine the attrition rates for illicit drug users snagged by the law.

(Number Of People Serving Time For Drug Offenses In US Prisons)
Federal: “Between 2001 and 2013, more than half of prisoners serving sentences of more than a year in federal facilities were convicted of drug offenses. On September 30, 2013 (the end of the most recent fiscal year for which federal offense data were available), 98,200 inmates (51% of the federal prison population) were imprisoned for possession, trafficking, or other drug crimes.”
State: “Drug offenders comprised 16% (210,200 inmates) of the total state prison population in 2012.

(People On Probation For Drug Offenses In The US, 2013) Of the 3,910,647 adults on probation in the US at the end of 2013, 25% (approximately 977,662 people) had a drug charge as their most serious offense.

(People On Parole For Drug Offenses In The US, 2013) Of the 853,215 people on parole at the end of 2013, 32% (approximately 273,029 people) had a drug charge as their most serious offense.[ref][/ref]


Are you sitting down? You’ll need to after reading this: 98,200 plus 210,200 plus 977,662 plus 273,029 equals 1,559,091. That’s one and one-half million people either in prison, on parole, or on probation who are victims of the drug war.

(Estimated Number Of People In The US Sentenced To State and Federal Prison For Marijuana Offenses)

Total Federal Prisoners 2004 = 170,535
Total State Prisoners 2004 = 1,244,311

Percent of federal prisoners held for drug law violations = 55%
Percent of state prisoners held for drug law violations = 21%

Marijuana/hashish, Percent of federal drug offenders, 2004 = 12.4%
Marijuana/hashish, Percent of state drug offenders, 2004 = 12.7%

(Total prisoners x percent drug law) x percent marijuana = “marijuana prisoners”

Federal marijuana prisoners in 2004 = 11,630
State marijuana prisoners in 2004 = 33,186
Total federal and state marijuana prisoners in 2004 = 44,816

Note: These data only address people in prisons and thus exclude the 700,000+ offenders who may be in local jails because of a marijuana conviction.

As you can see there is a significant number of prisoners wasting away for simple possession/use/distribution of weed.

It’s revealing to note that of the estimated 196,574 people incarcerated into the US federal prison system in 2012, there were approximately nine times the number of drug offenses than there were of violent crimes: 11,688 were incarcerated for violent offenses including homicide and armed robbery, and an estimated 99,426 who were incarcerated for drug offenses. A ten to one ratio? I never would have anticipated that one.

(Local Jail Inmates) According to a federal survey of jail inmates, of the total 440,670 jail inmates in the US in 2002, 112,447 (25.5%) were drug offenders: 48,823 (11.1%) for possession and 56,574 (12.8%) for trafficking.[ref]IBID[/ref]

There is no question that we have an imbalanced system of justice in the US when it comes to drug use and possession. In a society where 56% of its adult population have tried marijuana, the laws do not reflect this new attitude.

My question to the reader is when marijuana becomes legal in the US what becomes of all those non-violent drug offenders caught in the system? Will they have to serve out their sentences while the rest of us enjoy our new freedoms? Or will those with a moral compass allow them an early release?