Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana

Summary

Simple Possession of Marijuana

(Published January 10, 2023)  The report entitled Weighing the Impact of Simple Possession of Marijuana: Trends and Sentencing in the Federal System updates a 2016 Commission study and examines sentences for simple possession of marijuana offenses in two respects. Part One of the report assesses trends in federal sentencings for simple possession of marijuana since fiscal year 2014. The report then describes the demographic characteristics, criminal history, and sentencing outcomes of federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years and compares them to federal offenders sentenced for possession of other drug types.

Part Two of the report examines how prior sentences for simple possession of marijuana (under both federal and state law) affect criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for new federal offenses. The report identifies how many federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2021—for any crime type—received criminal history points under Chapter Four of the Guidelines Manual for prior marijuana possession sentences. The report then assesses the impact of such points on those offenders’ criminal history category, one of the two components used to establish the sentencing guideline range.


Key Findings

Federal Sentencings for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • The number of federal offenders sentenced for simple possession of marijuana is relatively small and has been declining steadily from 2,172 in fiscal year 2014 to only 145 in fiscal year 2021.
  • The overall trends were largely driven by one district, the District of Arizona, which accounted for nearly 80 percent (78.9%) of all federal marijuana possession sentencings since 2014. As the number of such cases in the District of Arizona declined from a peak of 1,916 in 2014 to just two in fiscal year 2021, the overall federal caseload followed a similar pattern.
  • Federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession in the last five fiscal years tended to be male (85.5%), Hispanic (70.8%), and non-U.S. citizens (59.8%). A little over two-thirds (70.1%) were sentenced to prison; the average prison sentence imposed was five months.
  • As of January 2022, no offenders sentenced solely for simple possession of marijuana remained in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Impact of Prior Sentences for Simple Possession of Marijuana

  • In fiscal year 2021, 4,405 federal offenders (8.0%) received criminal history points under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences. Most of the prior sentences (79.3%) were for less than 60 days in prison, including non-custodial sentences. Furthermore, ten percent (10.2%) of these 4,405 offenders had no other criminal history points.
  • The criminal history points assigned under the federal sentencing guidelines for prior marijuana possession sentences resulted in a higher criminal history category for 1,765 of the 4,405 offenders (40.1%).
  • Of the 1,765 offenders whose criminal history category was impacted by a prior marijuana possession sentence, most were male (94.2%), U.S. citizens (80.0%), and either Black (41.7%) or Hispanic (40.1%).
  • Nearly all (97.0%) of the prior marijuana possession sentences were for state convictions, some of which were from states that have changed their laws to decriminalize (22.2%) or legalize (18.2%) marijuana possession, states that allow for expungement or sealing of marijuana possession records (19.7%), or some combination thereof. Prior sentences for marijuana possession from these states resulted in higher criminal history calculations under the federal sentencing guidelines for 695 offenders.