Criminal justice reformers continue to be the biggest winners when it comes to cannabis legalization as shown by the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s annual report.
Despite a lack of any modifications to The Controlled Substances Act over the years and marijuana continuing to be listed as a schedule one narcotic, meaning the highest risk for abuse with no “known” medical value, the data continues to show things are looking a lot better on the criminal justice side compared to when states began legalization.
The biggest takeaway from the 2021 data? Just 1,000 people were charged federally with marijuana crimes. They accounted for 5.7% of all federal drug crimes. Nearly half of all federal drug crimes, 48%, involved methamphetamine. That dwarfed the 16.6% of the runner-up powder cocaine. Marijuana was sixth on the list. Just over a third of federal offenses in 2021 were drug crimes, followed by immigration charges.
Longtime policy guru Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), has been helping move things in the right direction for decades.
“Although Congress has failed to amend federal cannabis laws, clearly the attitudes and priorities of federal prosecutors have shifted in the era of state-level marijuana legalization,” Armentano said. “Now it’s time for federal lawmakers to codify these changes in priorities by descheduling marijuana.”
NORML broke down the numbers a little further, noting the number of people charged federally in 2012, the year Colorado and Washington voted to legalize, was 7,000. But change would happen fast, by the time California voted on Proposition 64 in 2016, the number had been halved to 3,500 federally charged.
Also on the positive side for marijuana, it had the shortest sentences of all the individual drugs tracked in the sentencing report. In fact, the 30-month average sentence seen in 2021 was at most half the sentence of other drugs tracked. Both fentanyl and heroin cases had an average sentence of 60 months in 2021. Marijuana sentences were roughly a third of the time of the 86-months the average methamphetamine case caught.
“Despite this downward trend in federal marijuana prosecutions, America’s outdated federal laws are still having a significant and unnecessary impact on real people’s lives. Congress has the opportunity to change that,” NORML’s Political Director Morgan Fox said. “Lawmakers must continue to build momentum to end our failed marijuana prohibition policies and help those who have been unjustly hurt by them. We urge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expunge Act immediately, and sincerely hope that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sticks to his planned April introduction of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.”
There was a noticeable race discrepancy in the 994 people charged with marijuana trafficking in 2021. Caucasians accounted for the lowest percentage of those charged. The 134 white people charged made up 13.5%, the 167 Black people charged made up 16.8%, and the 636 Hispanics charged made up a whopping 64% of offenders. So while the trend in the positive direction for the overall number is clear, things certainly are yet to progress on the subject of racial equality in enforcement.
The data also revealed some other interesting takeaways. One was those charged with a federal marijuana offense in 2016 also were likely to be among the most well-educated offenders. Following powder cocaine, those charged with a marijuana offense were the most likely to have a college degree.
Marijuana offenders also were the least likely to have a weapon involved in their crime; 81.3% of those charged were unarmed.