Bernie and Hillary's Marijuana Misconceptions

Both candidates seem to think our prisons are filled with pot smokers.


During the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas last week, Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, became the first major-party candidate to endorse marijuana legalization. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by contrast, stuck with a wait-and-see position, saying, "I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today." But both candidates seemed confused about marijuana's role in the war on drugs and its contribution to this country's world-beating incarceration rate.

Asked how he would vote on the marijuana legalization initiative that will be on Nevada's ballot next year if he lived in that state, Sanders initially said, "I suspect I would vote yes." Apparently encouraged by the applause that reply elicited, he made his answer firmer:

"I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs, which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system. We've got a lot of work to do in that area."

Although Sanders did not say anything that was literally untrue, he left the misleading impression that many drug offenders in prison are pot smokers who were caught with a little weed. Picking up on that implication, Clinton made a statement that is clearly wrong:

"I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana."

About 300,000 people are serving time for drug offenses in state and federal prisons, which represents one-fifth of the total prison population. But only 15 percent of those drug war prisoners (around 45,000 people) are behind bars because of marijuana offenses, and those offenses typically involve cultivation or distribution. Hence it is clearly not true that prison sentences for "nonviolent, low-level offenses" (which include many property crimes as well as drug offenses) "are primarily due to marijuana," let alone possession of marijuana for personal use.

Yet the misconception that our prisons are filled with pot smokers is common enough that a few years ago the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) devoted a 40-page pamphlet to refuting it. Presumably that belief is prevalent because marijuana, which is by far the country's most popular illegal drug, accounts for the lion's share of drug arrests in the United States (nearly half last year). But the vast majority of pot busts (nearly nine out of 10) involve simple possession, and people arrested for that offense generally do not spend much time in jail, let alone go to prison, which is reserved for offenders serving sentences of more than a year. Although some states continued to treat simple possession of marijuana as a felony as late as 2001, none does anymore.

Reformers who seek to "end the era of mass incarceration," as Clinton says she wants to do, need to understand the nature of the problem, which is not "primarily due to marijuana." Releasing every marijuana offender would barely make a dent in the prison population, which last year totaled 1.6 million. Even releasing all drug offenders, who represent 50 percent of federal prisoners but only 16 percent of state prisoners (a much bigger group), would still leave a lot to do. It would reduce the prison population to its level in the mid-1990s, following a dramatic increase that began a decade before then.

As illustrated by the ONDCP pamphlet, exaggerating marijuana's role in mass incarceration gives ammunition to prohibitionists, who cite such hyperbole as evidence that critics of the war on drugs don't know what they're talking about. It also undermines sentencing reform, since people who support lighter penalties while imagining a pot smoker serving hard time over a joint may change their minds when they realize the main beneficiaries are cocaine, meth, and heroin dealers. Maybe worst of all, invoking the mostly mythical travesty of imprisoned pot smokers confuses the public about what is actually wrong with pot prohibition.

It is beyond absurd that police in this country continue to arrest about 700,000 people a year for growing, selling, or (mainly) possessing something you can openly and legally buy in Denver or Seattle. Even when marijuana offenders do not receive jail or prison offenses, they suffer long-lasting ancillary penalties from their brushes with the law, which can have a serious impact on their educational and employment opportunities, in addition to the immediate humiliation, inconvenience, legal expenses, and loss of liberty associated with a criminal arrest. And 45,000 people in prison for marijuana offenses, serving terms as long as life, is 45,000 too many.

Americans finally seem to be recognizing the injustice of marijuana prohibition, which is presumably why Sanders felt comfortable returning to a position he originally took back in the 1970s, before he was a national politician representing an entire state and seeking his party's presidential nomination. Sanders' reversion is reminiscent of Barack Obama's poll-driven "evolution" on gay marriage, which in 2012 led him back to the view he had expressed 16 years before as a political novice running for the Illinois Senate.

Until last week, Sanders sounded a lot like Clinton on marijuana policy, saying he was interested to see what happens in the states where voters have approved legalization. By publicly admitting his support for legalization, he instantly became the pot-friendliest major-party presidential candidate. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the most libertarian candidate in the Republican field, has declined to take a position on the merits of legalization, saying only that the federal government should not try to force pot prohibition on the states.

"This is the first time we've seen a major candidate for president say he'd probably vote for legalizing marijuana if given the chance," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell. "That says a lot about how far the politics on this issue have shifted in a very short amount of time. As a point of reference, in 2008 no major candidate even supported decriminalization when asked in a debate, and our movement had to chase them around New Hampshire and repeatedly harass them just to garner pledges to stop federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients. Legalization is at the forefront of mainstream American politics, and politicians are starting to treat it as such."

This article originally appeared at

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    2. Fuck off, slaver.

  2. Claiming that Sanders is even slightly mistaken or exaggerating is a misservice, or perhaps even an attempt at deception.

    There are plenty of people who have been sitting in local and county courts, for whatever reason, and have seen plenty of trials and hearings where someone had actually been in JAIL, not prison, but JAIL after a simple possession arrest, many for a weekend or a not-uncommon period of a couple weeks… the judge is usually heard as sentencing them to “time served”.

    Please, stop what seems to be a campaign of prevarication concerning responses to Sanders’ pariclularly TRUE statement.

    1. You’re emotions don’t trump facts.

  3. Misconception? This whole article is a misconception. You (author, Jacob Sullam) are obviously trying to ‘downplay’ the truth by throwing out statistics from the propaganda machine.

    This article is one big opinion piece without all the facts…this is truly a one sided ‘editorial’, not news…nowhere has the author talked to one single person that has been incarcerated.

    I bet he didn’t even leave the comfort of his PC to come up with this story. More than likely, sit at his little laptop, sipping his latte, reading Justice Department statistics, typing away with the thought..’I am going to win a Pullitzer’. Again not news, just a poorly researched editorial.

    This is one of those things you have to experience first hand, amount of reading or statistical studies will allow you to truly know the enormous power dropped in the lap of the ‘injustice’ system, simply in the name of ‘the war on drugs’.

    1. Yes, how dare he cite actual numbers when he could have written a post based solely on emotion like you!

    2. That was some A-grade trolling. You sir, are truly an idiot-savant.

      I love the way you completely misunderstood the point of the article and attacked Sullum without realizing that HE IS ON YOUR SIDE.

      1. Somehow this article brought out the Bern-tards like flies to shit.
        And they don’t hesitate to remind us how fucking stupid they are.

    3. Not to mention how our liberties are violated by over zealous cops and judges when they gather evidence used to prosecute pot growers.
      The precursor to NSA spying on citizens in the name of the “War on Terror”.

  4. sullum..yeh, yeh spelled ur name wrong

    1. I don’t get it. Is this you just mumbling?

      See, when you mumble to yourself, you aren’t supposed to actually type that.

  5. The problem is that Democrats will never admit that strict gun laws contribute just as much if not more to our mass incarceration problem as drug laws. Drug dealers who carry guns for protection get hit with huge sentence enhancers and also get classified as violent criminals, even if they never used their gun.

    1. But … but guns are bad! If we just make laws against them, violence will be no more!

  6. How many people are in prison because of pot prohibition when a probationer fails to meet their obligations? Or had been convicted of a minor crime worthy of probation in itself?

  7. It’s ridiculous that politicians don’t support marijuana legalization. It’s a vote-losing position. It’s almost like they don’t want to keep their jobs.

  8. It’s sad how drug legalization is so far behind. It’s difficult enough with marijuana. Can you even imagine talking about legalizing or decriminalizing cocaine?

    1. Think how it would change the dynamic of interaction with strippers. And chicks at clubs in a bathroom stall.

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  11. Less than one percent of the prison population are folks who are there just because they smoked pot. So Sullum is telling the truth.

    I can smell the stuff at local parks, in broad daylight. The police don’t have the time or resources to bust every one of these pot smoking kids. The cops in LA actually under reported certain crimes, and it turned out violent crime was actually rising slightly in LA in the last 7 years.

    1. federal prisons are that stat, the state prisons are indeed housing many just smokers.

  12. What a fucking asshole. He just had to get in a jab on CEOs when discussing pot legalization.

  13. Hillary doesn’t inhale ,she Sucks !!


    55%, not 50%, of federal prisoners are there for drug offenses.
    While that figure is 21% for state prisoners.

    All drugs should be legalized. Often people are charged with multiple drug law violations, both pot and non-pot. Often in plea bargaining, some charges are dropped. Many suffer due to “civil forfeiture”.

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is. Many people are ruined because of pot offenses.

    1. Not goofballs. Anyone hepped up on goofballs is going DOWN!

  15. The numbers I’ve found are all over the map. But, even if as the author says only 45,000 are in prison for pot offenses, that’s too much. Pot is a silly little drug, less offensive than alcohol. And then there are the 700,000 people a year arrested for “growing, selling, or (mainly) possessing something you can openly and legally buy in Denver or Seattle” It’s time to dump this silly crusade. In fact, it’s time we recognize drug use in general is a personal issue and not a crime. Aside from punishing people for exercising their personal choice, there is the absurd cost to society by forcing them into the criminal category, and the absurd waste of money in policing, incarcerating and adjudicating these ‘crimes’.

    “About 300,000 people are serving time for drug offenses in state and federal prisons, which represents one-fifth of the total prison population. But only 15 percent of those drug war prisoners (around 45,000 people) are behind bars because of marijuana offenses, and those offenses typically involve cultivation or distribution.”

  16. since Washington and Jefferson both grew and USED marijuana how exactly could that natural herb be illegal in a country they sorta founded?

    1. Citation needed. Not on the growing, but on the using.

    2. While listening to Bob Marley CD’s too. Which is quite an achievement, as MR. Marley was not even born yet. And neither the compact disc, nor the CD player, receiver, speakers, electrical power, etc. had been invented yet.

      But they got ripped listening to Bob Marley CD’s anyway! That’s how awesome those dudes were. They FOUND a way!

  17. “Until last week, Sanders sounded a lot like Clinton on marijuana policy, saying he was interested to see what happens in the states where voters have approved legalization.”

    If that’s true, and more politicians are gravitating toward this nuanced view, what it REALLY means is that the federal government should, at a minimum, remove cannabis from all criminal legislation, and virtually all OTHER legislation, leaving it up to the states, entirely (the stickier issue–for true believers in the state–being the alphabet soup organizations who pretend to make our food and medicines wholesome, whereas I’ve always believed it should be regulated no more than oregano.)

    Who sees that happening any time soon? That, of course, leaves out the more correct and more general assertion that ANY contraband legislation, if tolerated at all, should be left to the states. They used to be able to figure out how to peaceably work out such issues under the UCC, leaving the feds out of it.

    1. I’ve always believed it should be regulated no more than oregano.


  18. What the statistics this “misconception” don’t show is that a simple marijuana possession is often on your record for life. A record that prevents you from getting education loans, many jobs, basically makes you less than a second class citizen. People in this situation get frustrated and often resort to other ways to survive, ie become criminals. I’d be curious to see what percentage of incarcerated criminals had their first offense as a “simple possession” charge. What percentage of incarcerations are due to failed drug tests while on parole or probation? What percentage of incarcerations are connected to not being able to pay fines, probation fees, or parole fees from simple possession charges and now being unemployable. I bet that there is a very strong connection to the simple possession charge that is not being considered by the statistics this author used.

  19. I love your reporting, Jacob. But in the context of referring to “the senator from Vermont”, the proper label would be “Independent”, like when C-SPAN captions him as “I-VT”. After all, that’s the affiliation that was listed when the people of Vermont voted for him in his last nine elections.

    If you want to refer to Bernie Sanders by characterizing his policy ideas, the proper label would be “Democratic Socialist”, like how that term is used in European politics, since their policies are similar to his proposals.

    But you used “the socialist Senator from Vermont” specifically as a trigger word to scare readers, much like neo-cons coined “the Democrat Party” to emphasize the “rat” sound and de-emphasize “democratic”.

    That’s as fast and loose with the truth as when Marijuana Policy Project cited Sanders as the first mainstream presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization since Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s choice for 2012. I tend to believe that your party has to have at least one win in a presidential, US House, US Senate, state house, or state senate race to be considered “mainstream”.

    1. He IS a self proclaimed socialist. And he wants his socialism on a national level. You know who else liked his socialism nationally?

      1. No. He’s a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. – Big difference. – Do you ever use the Interstate Highway System? – That’s the world’s largest socialist project. – If you are against anything socialist, you must now ride only on secondary roads. – Oh, and we’ll be glad to take back any Social Security payments that you surely wouldn’t want, right?

  20. He is running for Pres as a Democrat. He is a fucking socialist, at least he admits to being one. Fuck him with a hammer and sickle.

    1. That might actually happen if he shows up o this season of American Horror Story.

  21. Sanders wasn’t all wrong. MANY people are in prison because of marijuana. It may not be their “primary” offense, but the presence of marijuana is often the door that opens to people’s privacy, allowing the collection of evidence that wouldn’t have happened without a marijuana prohibition law. – Also, many people are sent back to prison for “violating” their probation or parole by having marijuana. So, don’t get too comfortable with the “official statistics.”

    But, yes. Prison isn’t the worst damage the fraudulent prohibition causes. — More than 600,000 innocent Americans are arrested for simple marijuana possession each year and made second-class citizens – for life! They will forever face large obstacles to decent employment, education, travel, housing, government benefits, and will always go into court with one strike against them. They can even have their children taken away!

    This is a form of prison that has 20 million Americans are now locked away in this very un-American sub-class. That has a horrible effect on the whole country, being an incredible waste of human potential.

    The fraudulent marijuana prohibition has never accomplished one positive thing. It has only caused vast amounts of crime, corruption, violence, death and the severe diminishing of everyone’s freedom.

  22. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  23. Under Texas law, if parents were to catch their child growing marijuana in the yard, they could run a lawnmower over the weed, bag everything and let the garbagemen haul it off, and STILL have their home confiscated and be held liable for the mortgage (with no place to live). All the police have to do is dig up a couple of roots. Marijuana roots are declared an illegal drug in the law passed and signed by Republicans and Democrats, and the conviction could also trigger the Doomsday Device of mandatory minimums. If the child were shot by police while trying to protect his parents with a BB gun, the Christian court would declare that shooting “justified,” as happened recently in Cleveland.

  24. Walking into a cannabis shop in WA is like stepping into a Baskin & Robbins ice cream store. But with more flavors. Same guy in front of the line who can’t decide.

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