Op/Ed: How Many People Are In Prison For Marijuana Possession?


How Many People Are In Prison For Marijuana Possession? The following article has been written by Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. It includes editorial content which is the opinion of the writer.


“As of January 2022, no offenders sentenced solely for simple possession of marijuana remained in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”

State prisons are filled to the brim with violent offenders or those with multiple convictions for violence or felonies. There is no room for offenders solely charged with marijuana possession.



Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of directing award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Former police officer. Aspiring drummer.

Author of ”Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization” available at Amazon and additional booksellers.

As a Cop I’ve Lied Many Times… You’re Welcome.


Those of us writing about crime are asked why prisons are filled with people possessing marijuana. When I reply that their assertion is misconstrued, they insist that it’s not. To me, the question itself indicates a lack of understanding as to how the justice system operates, yet the inquiries persist.

Per one source, “Fortunately, in March of 2021, a few statisticians from the BJS released a new report using data gathered in 2018. And if you apply the earlier report’s substance-specific drug offense proportions to the new report’s updated state and federal prison population figures, you’d conclude that there are around 32K cannabis prisoners (~22K state cannabis prisoners and ~10K federal facilities).”

Obviously, a cannabis prisoner could extend from simple possession to transporting tons of marijuana as part of an organized crime operation. Possession may be one of many charges but in my experience, minor charges like possession are routinely dropped.  I’m guessing that cannabis prisoners are associated with an array of additional crimes.

The report below is from the United States Sentencing Commission looking solely at federal prisons but based on data from the US Department of Justice-Bureau of Justice Statistics, the vast majority of people sentenced to state prisons are violent (58 percent) or have histories of violence or are in for multiple felony convictions. That simply doesn’t leave a lot of room for people with marijuana possession charges.

Other Charges

Per a Department of Justice study of those who had drugs in their system during an arrest, among adult males, marijuana was the drug most often detected in 24 of the 34 reporting sites, and cocaine was the drug most likely to be detected in the other 10 sites.

Based on this data, it’s been my experience that people arrested for marijuana possession are often involved in additional nefarious activities. A family friend was arrested for marijuana possession because multiple people were sitting in a car blaring extremely loud music outside of a house late at night and the owners called the cops. I told her that she wasn’t arrested for marijuana possession, she was arrested for being stupid.

Marijuana possession arrests are used because the evidence is obvious when other charges are iffy. People bothering the community at 1:00 a.m. and robbing them of their sleep suddenly become complacent when cops show up. Neighbors demand arrests thus marijuana possession often becomes the defacto charge that is routinely dropped by prosecutors depending on criminal history.

Most states and territories have either legalized or decriminalized possession or have medical marijuana provisions so marijuana arrests as a tool for other misdeeds are receding considerably. Cops have decriminalized marijuana possession charges for decades by not enforcing them except when expedient. More than 300,000 people were arrested for cannabis possession in 2020, FBI records show and my guess, based on data, is that possession was associated with other crimes for the vast majority.

Alcatraz_prison_cell by pfnatic

US Sentencing Commission Report-Federal Arrests 

Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana: Trends and Sentencing in the Federal System updates a 2016 Commission study and examines sentences for simple possession of marijuana offenses in two respects.

Part One of the report assesses trends in federal sentencing for simple possession of marijuana since fiscal year 2014. The report then describes the demographic characteristics, criminal history, and sentencing outcomes of federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years and compares them to federal offenders sentenced for possession of other drug types.

Part Two of the report examines how prior sentences for simple possession of marijuana (under both federal and state law) affect criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for new federal offenses.

The report identifies how many federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2021—for any crime type—received criminal history points under Chapter Four of the Guidelines Manual for prior marijuana possession sentences.

The report then assesses the impact of such points on those offenders’ criminal history category, one of the two components used to establish the sentencing guideline range.

Congress to vote on federal decriminalization of marijuana in December – here’s what happens next

Key Findings

Federal Sentencings for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • The number of federal offenders sentenced for simple possession of marijuana is relatively small and has been declining steadily from 2,172 in fiscal year 2014 to only 145 in fiscal year 2021.
  • The overall trends were largely driven by one district, the District of Arizona, which accounted for nearly 80 percent (78.9%) of all federal marijuana possession sentencings since 2014. As the number of such cases in the District of Arizona declined from a peak of 1,916 in 2014 to just two in fiscal year 2021, the overall federal caseload followed a similar pattern.
  • Federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years tended to be male (85.5%), Hispanic (70.8%), and non-U.S. citizens (59.8%)-emphasis added. A little over two-thirds (70.1%) were sentenced to prison; the average prison sentence imposed was five months.
  • As of January 2022, no offenders sentenced solely(emphasis added) for simple possession of marijuana remained in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Impact of Prior Sentences for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • In fiscal year 2021, 4,405 federal offenders (8.0%) received criminal history points under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences. Most of the prior sentences (79.3%) were for less than 60 days in prison, including non-custodial sentences. Furthermore, ten percent (10.2%) of these 4,405 offenders had no other criminal history points (emphasis added).
  • The criminal history points assigned under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences resulted in a higher criminal history category for 1,765 of the 4,405 offenders (40.1%).
  • Of the 1,765 offenders whose criminal history category was impacted by a prior marijuana possession sentence, most were male (94.2%), U.S. citizens (80.0%), and either Black (41.7%) or Hispanic (40.1%).
  • Nearly all (97.0%) of the prior marijuana possession sentences were for state convictions, some of which were from states that have changed their laws to decriminalize (22.2%) or legalize (18.2%) marijuana possession, states that allow for expungement or sealing of marijuana possession records (19.7%), or some combination thereof. Prior sentences for marijuana possession from these states resulted in higher criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for 695 offenders.


United States Sentencing Commission

Op-ed: It's time to let the public decide the appropriateness and length of prison sentences
Copyright free stock image.

Marijuana As A Tool For Detentions Or Investigations

If 60 percent of federal marijuana arrests were for non-U.S. citizens, it’s probably immigration related where marijuana was used as a tool for detention.

If ten percent of federal marijuana offenders had no other criminal history points, that means that the overwhelming majority had criminal histories, and again, marijuana could be used for detention during an investigation.

No offenders sentenced solely for simple possession of marijuana remained in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which suggests that marijuana possession was coupled with other crimes.


I was asked on a national television show what I thought about law enforcement making arrests for marijuana possession. I stated that the justice system has bigger fish to fry; policing cannot be all things to all people.

There have to be limits as to what people ask law enforcement to do. Police officers are leaving the job by the tens of thousands. Arrests have plummeted. Response times are down. Every day, society expects cops to do more with less.

Marijuana possession should be decriminalized or legalized solely to avoid the massive problems associated with Probation (1920-1933) sucking millions into illegal activity simply for drinking a beer or related activities. During Prohibition, average law-abiding citizens embraced organized crime. Poll after poll clearly states that the great majority of Americans want marijuana legalized. It’s time to move on.

But like so many lower-level offenses, arrests for possession of any drug can be useful during an investigative process. There may be uncertainty as to who hit who during an aggravated assault or a domestic violence case but arrests for possession of an illegal substance has their uses for separating combatants, keeping the peace, or giving domestic violence victims a chance to seek assistance.

A study found that a quarter of serious or fatal accidents involved someone who tested positive for some form of weed, and nearly a quarter more had alcohol in their system.

Every social solution, regardless of public opinion, comes with a price.

Baltimore tosses nearly 600 criminal arrest warrants, stops prosecuting crimes including prostitution, drugs, pooping in public and more

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Op/Ed: How Many People Are In Prison For Marijuana Possession?

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