“When you look at the number of people in our state and federal penitentiaries, who are there for possession of small amounts of cannabis, you begin to really scratch your head. We have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.”
—Former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), in an interview with Bloomberg News, April 11, 2018
Boehner, who once opposed marijuana legalization, made headlines recently when he announced he had joined the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a multi-state cannabis company with holdings in both medical and adult-use states. His shift shows that acceptance of marijuana use has increasingly become mainstream.
But that doesn’t mean the facts have followed. In explaining his decision, Boehner repeated a myth — that the United States has “filled up our jails” with nonviolent people whose only crime was that they possessed marijuana.
There’s no question that in the United States, many people are arrested for marijuana possession. Nearly 600,000 people a year are arrested for marijuana possession, or more than one marijuana possession arrest every minute, according to estimates from Justice Department data.
But relatively few of those arrested end up in prison. Most prisoners are in state systems, and the Department of Justice does not break down exactly the percentage of people who are in prison for marijuana possession — just all types of drug possession, including hard drugs such as heroin. The federal data, however, does provide that breakdown.
So what do we find? In the state correctional institutions, only 3.4 percent of prisoners were in jail for all types of drug possession as of Dec. 31, 2015, according to the Justice Department. While Boehner claimed that the prisons have been filled with nonviolent prisoners, the