Sanders Misleadingly Connects 'Mass Incarceration' to Pot Busts

Clinton minimizes her role in advocating longer sentences and exaggerates her role in trying to shorten them.



During last night's Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders declared that "we have got to have the guts to rethink the so-called war on drugs." But then he immediately chickened out, saying "too many lives have been destroyed because people possessed marijuana, millions over a 30-year period." That number refers to marijuana possession arrests, which can have lasting social, educational, and occupational consequences but rarely result in substantial time behind bars. Since Sanders' remark about marijuana possession arrests came in the middle of a discussion about "mass incarceration," it was pretty misleading.

The vast majority of incarcerated drug offenders, who represent about half of federal prisoners and 16 percent of state prisoners, were not convicted of marijuana crimes, let alone simple possession. But politicians, even those urging us to "rethink the so-called war on drugs," prefer to talk about pot smokers rather than crack, heroin, and meth dealers. Sanders did a similar bait and switch during last October's debate in Las Vegas, prompting Clinton to say something that was not just misleading but blatantly 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. Avowed reformers who pretend otherwise are undermining their own cause.

Still, Sanders deserves credit for being the first major-party candidate in the current election cycle to call for repealing federal marijuana prohibition and the only one to introduce a bill that would do that. Last night he reiterated that "we should take marijuana out of the federal Controlled Substance Act," in sharp contrast with Clinton, who has said only that cannabis should be moved to Schedule II, which would facilitate medical research but would not have any direct impact on arrests.

Last night Clinton did not explicitly mention the war on drugs as a factor in overincarceration, but she did say this about the crime bill:

There were decisions that were made that now we must revisit and we have to correct. I think that sentences got much too long. The original idea was not that we would increase sentences for non-violent low-level offenders, but once the federal government did what it did, states piled on.

"There were decisions that were made" does not quite constitute an apology for her enthusiastic support of putting more people in prison for longer periods of time. Furthermore, the Clinton administration did not merely lead by example: The crime bill offered states money to build more prisons, contingent on passage of "truth in sentencing" laws, which make prison terms longer by restricting or eliminating parole.

Clinton not only minimized her role as a cheerleader for her husband's tough-on-crime policies; she exaggerated her role in the movement to make the criminal justice system less blindly punitive. "The very first speech I gave in this campaign," she said, "was about what I will do to reform the criminal justice system and end…mass incarceration." She was referring to her April 2015 speech at Columbia University, which condemned mass incarceration but did not really explain what she would do about it. In fact, the speech was remarkably vague on that point, although she did eventually endorse some specific sentencing reforms. Sanders has gone farther on that issue as well, calling for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences.

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  1. The people convicted of distribution shouldn’t have been charged, either.

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  3. “But only 15 percent of those drug war prisoners (around 45,000 people) are behind bars because of marijuana offenses,”

    45,000 people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses sounds like mass incarceration to me.

    And chiding Bernie for ignoring heroin and meth is just stupid. There is almost no support for legalizing those drugs. The man is trying to get elected and is already seen as a crackpot – and you expect him to embrace hard drugs?

    1. How are we defining “violent” versus “nonviolent.” If a violent offence one where the accused is carrying a weapon whether or not he threatens anyone with it? Anyone know?

      1. Merely carrying will get you defined as a violent criminal. The dirty little secret that Bernie and Hilary don’t want to acknowledge is that stringent gun laws play a huge part in our incarceration rates, and focusing on “nonviolent” offenders will do little to solve the problem.

        1. You don’t even have to carry it.

          Just simply possessing one in your home while also possessing arbitrarily proscibed substances is enough for that claim.

  4. I wonder if there are any stats on how many people are incarcerated for probation/parole violations after a positive marijuana test or simple possession arrest.

    1. I would like to know how many in prison are there because of possession of a firearm. Even though possession of weed doesn’t send folks to prison, what about weed + a gun? I suspect that guns laws have nearly as large a role in mass incarceration as drug laws. The problem is that the same folks that care about mass incarceration also demand draconian punishment for weapons charges.

  5. Even if he was correct and 30 million people have had their lives ruined by pot – how does arresting them and throwing them in jail help at all?

    1. The quote was “millions over a 30-year period”, not 30 million.

      I’m not even sure that’s inaccurate. If only 45,000 people are in prison right now, that isn’t counting the people who were in prison 10, 15, 30 years ago. How many people were in prison for marijuana offenses in 1985?

      1. IN any case – if marijuana ruined your life, how is throwing you in jail going to help?

  6. When one man is enslaved, all are not free.

    Even if the numbers of people in prison for marijuana offenses is “only” 45,000 (at the moment), that’s still way too many people in prison. And ending the war on drugs isn’t going to happen in one fell swoop. It’s going to start with marijuana.
    Nevermind that the total number of people whose lives have been ruined because of past drug convictions involving marijuana vastly exceeds the number of people actually in prison right now. It’s fair to say that’s probably a small fraction of the number of people with felony convictions for marijuana on their records, which is probably a small fraction of the number whose lives have been harmed by marijuana arrests.

  7. What a grubby simplistic white washing of a complex chain of cause and effect.
    The prohibition industry is constantly hunting people down and giving convictions to as many as it can and criminalizing them, robbing them of employment opportunities and filling them with contempt for the system and traumatizing them. At the same time prohibition creates a criminal industry with which to secure income for people who find their life opportunities reduced. The drug industry is unprotected by law and encourages its members to take of violent means of self policing and justice. And marijuana prohibition loads up people with minor offence previous convictions that weight to more serious offences in sentencing.
    The marijuana convictions set people on a path to crime and add previous criminal history the increases length of sentences for more serious matters. And mandatory 3 strike laws ensure that small offences add up to long sentences.
    So yes, when you look at the situation carefully, cannabis prohibition has certainly help fill the prisons.
    You cannot white wash prohibition. It is an ugly monster consuming the community.

  8. Congressional caucus leaders on both sides of the aisle issued the following statement: “This whole mass incarceration issue has caused us to question the knee-jerk reactions we so often see in a ‘crisis’, and to advocate for thoughtful approaches rather than simply demanding immediate action without regard for the long-term consequences.”

    Ha ha, just kidding. Cue the next moral panic.

  9. I understand we are talking about prison, but I did 3 months in an Upstate NY jail for simple possession of less than one ounce. Incarceration is incarceration, period. No human being should ever be locked in cage for putting something into his/her body.

    (As a side note: After being released from my cage, I became a decorated veteran, held a Top-Secret clearance, currently do military work as a civilian, and have never stopped smoking. So up yours, government!)

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