Marijuana was mentioned a number of times during the first Democratic debate on Oct. 14, 2015 — in some situations when candidates were presented with the question if the candidates had used the stuff, and at other times in the context of criminal justice policy.

A reader asked us to check one claim by Sen. Bernie Sanders interference to marijuana. Late in the debate, Sanders was asked if he had a stance on a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Nevada, the state where the debate was being held.

If he were a Nevada resident, Sanders stated, “I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent 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.”

A moment later, Sanders’ opponent for the nomination, Hillary Clinton, gave some rhetorical support for Sanders’ claim, saying, “I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana.”

Yet is it true that, as Sanders put it, the United States is “imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana”? We decided to take a closer look.

What the facts point out is that possession itself isn’t normally enough to put someone in jail. Instead, those sentenced to prison for marijuana offenses were more commonly found to be committing crimes more serious than just possessing marijuana (or “smoking” it, as Sanders put it). Often, this means selling it or trafficking it.

The Justice Department projected that 3.6 percent of state inmates in 2013 had drug possession as their most serious crime. That includes possession charges for all drugs, not just cannabis. To measure the marijuana-only percentage, we have to go back to information that is a decade old.

The Justice Department every now and again carries out surveys of inmates in state and federal correctional facilities, the last of which was from 2004. In reference to this research, only about three-tenths of 1 percent of state prison inmates were there because of cannabis possession alone, without a more serious charge.

Meanwhile, the statistics for federal inmates paint a similar picture.


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