Recently the Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that the percentage of people in federal prison for cannabis convictions has dropped 61% between 2013-2018. The data was featured in an article published on July 13, entitled “Sentencing Decisions for Persons in Federal Prison for Drug Offenses, 2013-2018.”
BJS Director Dr. Alexis Piquero explained that the decrease of people with cannabis-related convictions in prison was the most significant drop in comparison to other substances. “Although the number of people in federal prison for drug offenses decreased over this five-year span, they still accounted for a large share—almost half—of the people in [Federal Bureau of Prisons] BOP custody in 2018,” said Piquero. “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.”
In the same time period, crack cocaine imprisonments dropped by 45%, powder cocaine dropped by 35%, and there was a 4% decline for those imprisoned for opioids. On the other hand, heroin has increased by 13%, and methamphetamine increased by 12%.
A large majority of people incarcerated in these prisons were labeled as trafficking convictions, and much fewer for possession. In 2013, 94,065 were in federal custody due to trafficking, but only 548 for possession or “other drug” offenses. In 2014, trafficking decreased slightly to 92,378 and possession up to 581 individuals, followed by 88,386 for trafficking and 525 for possession in 2015.
However, the most significant change occurred in 2016. Trafficking continued downward, but the number of people in federal prisons dropped to just 150 people. In 2018, only 54 people remained in prison for possession, and made up less than 0.1% of all prisoners.
The report also included a breakdown of sex, race, and ethnicity separated by drug offense by the end of 2018. For cannabis, 19.3% of prisoners were white, 18.4% were Black, 59.3% were Hispanic, 1.8% were Asian/Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and 1.3% American Indian/Alaska Native. Of these prisoners, 95.1% were male, and 4.9% were female.
There’s a clear trend with the decrease in cannabis prisoners and the growth of legalization across the U.S. between 2013-2018, although with a lack of data between 2018 to present day, it will be some time before more information can be revealed.
Other government agencies’ data contributes to the big picture. In March, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) showed federal drug trafficking data for 2022. While the report showed that cannabis cases were decreasing, with 5,000 in 2013 to 806 in 2022, cases involving other substances such as cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine have increased.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department finally launched its own pardon certificate application for people who want to be pardoned for low-level federal cannabis convictions. “On Oct. 6, 2022, the President announced a full, unconditional and categorical pardon for prior federal and D.C. offenses of simple possession of marijuana,” the U.S. Justice Department wrote in its announcement. “The President’s pardon lifts barriers to housing, employment and educational opportunities for thousands of people with those prior convictions. President Biden directed the Justice Department to develop a process for individuals to receive their certificate of pardon.”
Individual states have also worked on pardoning cannabis convictions over the past year. In November 2022, Oregon Gov. Kathy Brown issued nearly 5,000 pardons for minor cannabis convictions. California Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned 10 individuals, although only two had cannabis-related convictions. By the turn of the new year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf pardoned 2,500 people, 400 of which had nonviolent cannabis convictions on their records.
More recently, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced that he wants to see pardons for psychedelic convictions. “So anybody who has something on their criminal record that is now legal can have that expunged and doesn’t hold them back from future employment opportunities,” Polis said at the Psychedelic Science Conference held in Denver.