Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 15, 2023

Marijuana laws in America, mainly in the US, have been changing for the past three decades, and especially the past few years.

Right now, medical marijuana is legal in 36 US states while recreational marijuana can be bought legally in 18 US states. Despite some states legalizing the use of this cannabis, it hasn’t been legalized on a federal level yet, which means that under the federal drug laws, Americans consuming, possessing, selling, and buying cannabis can face criminal penalties, end up with a criminal record, and some of them can even face time behind bars (and even a life sentence). Needless to say, this can end up causing problems with employment, housing, child custody, and financial aid.

Even though over two-thirds of Americans support cannabis legalization, thеre is still no exact information regarding when the law on cannabis-related offenses will change. Legal cannabis sales are expected to reach $43 billion until 2025, though the federal law and the criminal justice system in the US don’t currently follow this trend and have not passed a decriminalization law (yet). 

Since the US has a fairly large prison population, this article will focus on drug use and drug-related offenses and reveal how many people are currently in jail for offenses related to cannabis.

The War on Drugs and Cannabis Criminalization

Anti-drug policies were quite popular back in the early 20th century when cannabis became illegal in most parts of the world. In the US, these policies slowly became implemented during Harry Anslinger’s anti-cannabis campaign in the 1930s which together with Nixon’s “War on Drugs” campaign led to the criminalization of marijuana possession in the US. Cannabis was first prohibited in California, and from there the prohibition spread to all the US states.

Following the prohibition period, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. This act increased the taxes for cannabis cultivation and paved the way for further prohibition and regulation which led to the federal government passing a new marijuana law called the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1971. The CSA classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug stating that it has a high potential for dependency and no medical use (along with drugs such as LSD, heroin, and others). Hence, both medical and recreational cannabis became illegal to both cultivate and sell.

This whole period was characterized with demonization of the cannabis drug and cannabis users which led to the introduction of zero-tolerance policies, mandatory minimum sentencing, and three-strikes laws.

The Legality of Cannabis in the US Today

As we previously said, recreational weed is legal in 18 US states and Washington D.C., and medical weed is legal in as many as 36 US states and Washington D.C. even though cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I substance by the federal government. For that reason, there are mild to serious punishments for marijuana-related crimes. 

For example, a first-time cannabis offense for possession can get you a misdemeanor penalty, a $1,000 fine, and up to one year in jail. Second-time offenders can get an even worse penalty – a felony conviction, a $2,500 fine, and up to two years in prison. Cultivation and selling weed can result in the worst penalty which can include a mandatory prison time and a felony conviction.

Even though a lot of states have taken steps to decriminalize weed-related offenses, the decriminalization of cannabis on a federal level isn’t a reality still. A lot of US states impose strict penalties for marijuana offenses, although this may change in the near future.

The Difference Between Possession And Trafficking

There are major differences in the penalties when comparing possession of small amounts of cannabis and amounts that suggest that a person is cultivating, distributing, or selling large amounts of the cannabis drug both in state and federal laws.

According to the law, users who are found in possession of small amounts of cannabis receive small penalties since it’s considered that these people can stop using the drug with adequate treatment, education, and positive reinforcement. However, even small-time offenders can get a prison sentence especially when the marijuana offense, such as marijuana possession, was done while the person was on probation or on parole, and if they broke other laws while also being in possession of marijuana, etc.

On the other hand, drug offenders who are trafficking marijuana have more serious penalties because this is considered a crime as serious as violent crimes, which is why most traffickers get a prison sentence. 

How Many People Are in Jail on Marijuana Charges?  

The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons has increased a lot in the US. While in the 1970s about 200,000 people were incarcerated on a federal level, in the last years this number has increased 10 times.   

According to a statistical analysis done by Statista, The United States has the highest prison population in the world with roughly 2.12 million people who were incarcerated in 2021. Based on the statistics, the US is among the countries with the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, with 639 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, followed by Salvador, Turkmenistan, Thailand, and Palau.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s annual 2020 report, immigration cases were the largest group of offenses comprising 41.1 percent of all reported cases, while the cases involving drugs, firearms, and fraud were next in line. These 4 offenses combined together formed about 86.4 percent of all cases reported to the Commission in 2020.

An earlier analysis done in 2018, showed that around 176,300 prisoners in the US were sentenced on drug-related charges which are the most common causes of imprisonment in state prisons, followed by murder, robbery, and other felonies.

Cannabis Arrests in Numbers

According to FBI data, four-in-ten drug arrests in the US in 2018 were for marijuana offenses such as drug possession. That year, about 663,000 arrests were made for drug offenses which is about 40% of the 1.65 million total drug arrests in the U.S. in 2018.

The last report done in 2019, had a decrease of 18% compared to the previous year which is largely due to a lot of states legalizing cannabis, though it amounts to 545,602 people being arrested for weed-related crimes. Most of the arrests (about 92%) were people who use cannabis or were found in possession of small amounts of cannabis, and the other 8% were people who made money from cultivating or selling weed. This arrest rate is higher than the 495,871 people who were arrested for violent crimes that year (specifically, 9% higher).

Until cannabis is equally regulated on a federal level, this type of inequality will continue to affect a lot of cannabis users around the US, who can face serious jail time in one state, and no penalties in another.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana Arrests and Marijuana Offenses

Even though marijuana legalization is a hot topic in the world and especially in the US, and a lot of US states have legalized it for medical or recreational use, people are still getting locked up for cannabis possession in large percentages. 

Since the federal laws are quite different from state laws, there’s always a way for a person to be arrested and sentenced if found in possession of cannabis since cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug. 

Those who are still in federal prisons because of weed-related charges are not out yet because cannabis is still an illegal substance on a federal level, while people in state prisons and county jails are there because cannabis isn’t yet legal in that jurisdiction or there are no retroactive ameliorative relief provisions (mercy clauses) in the state cannabis laws. Until cannabis is declassified as a Schedule I drug, it’s unlikely that these numbers will significantly change in the near future.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


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