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Policy Paper Cites Benefits of Eliminating Federal Marijuana Prohibition

by Jo Ellen Nott

Data collected concerning the positive impact on federal incarceration rates and their cost if marijuana were to be decriminalized are impressive. Ending the federal marijuana prohibition would reduce incarceration costs by $571.8 million and reduce the federal prison population by 2,807 over a five-year period. Decriminalizing marijuana would add a staggering 15,270 life years not spent in federal prison. Minority populations would benefit the most: In the preceding five years, 67% of individuals receiving prison sentences for marijuana offenses were Hispanic.

Despite enforcement being unlikely on the federal level, and the rate of prison sentencing for federal marijuana offenses declining significantly in the last five years, an individual convicted of a federal marijuana offense still faces an average sentence of 38 months. Currently, more than 3,000 individuals are serving marijuana-related sentences in federal prisons. The recidivism rate of those incarcerated under federal marijuana trafficking offenses is 25%.
Most Americans support the legalization of marijuana, the paper’s authors report. Data show the percentage has doubled over the last 20 years from 34% to 68%. State government policy reflects this growing acceptance of marijuana.As of November 2021, only four states had laws that render marijuana illegal:  Idaho, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming. There are now 18 states that permit adults to use cannabis as fully legal—medical and decriminalized—and 36 states with a medical marijuana program.

Even though about one-third of the U.S. population currently lives in a state where recreational marijuana is legal—and more than 30 states have medical marijuana programs, researchers have not been allowed to use the cannabis sold at state-licensed dispensaries for their clinical studies because cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

Marijuana is prohibited on the federal level due to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Anyone growing, marketing, or distributing marijuana is likely violating multiple federal laws, but enforcement is unlikely.

Historically, the designation as a Schedule 1 drug has been difficult to change due to the Catch-22 proving it has medical value. Scientists need to study large quantities of different varieties of marijuana to prove its medical value. Still, they have been hindered by federal government restrictions on how much marijuana can go to research. For 50 years, the only federally approved grower was the University of Mississippi. In addition to finding sufficient quantities of the plant to study, researchers must be approved by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. 

The 18 states that have legalized recreational and medical marijuana use have not seen a significant increase in usage, reporting that while adult and youth usage rate has increased, it is still in line with trends existing before legalization. The incarceration rate for marijuana-related offenses is negligible in those states. Data from post-legalization states have not supported opponents’ claims of decreased road safety and increased violent crime as adverse effects.


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