Myth Exposed: Very Few People Go to Prison for Marijuana

Only 21 of the more than 9,000 people who were sentenced to prison in 2019 were guilty of marijuana offenses.

Next time you hear people decrying all of those “non-violent drug offenders” who are supposedly in state prisons, remember the marijuana prison statistics for Wisconsin.

In 2019, only 0.23% of all Wisconsin prison admissions “were for marijuana cases that did not include more serious crimes,” according to a new policy brief published on March 15, 2021, by the Badger Institute. “Few marijuana offenders in prison,” was authored by Badger Institute Policy Analyst Julie Grace.

The research found that incarceration “is rare for pot-only convictions,” according to the Badger Institute.

Marijuana Prison Statistics

Among the study’s other findings:


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  • Only 21 of the more than 9,000 people who were sentenced to prison in 2019 “were guilty of solely a marijuana offense or combination of such offenses, including possession, manufacture and intent to deliver. Of those 21 cases, only three were first-time offenders.”
  • “Sentences to jail — by definition less than a year — were more common than sentences to prison but were still relatively rare. Statewide, 651 people were sentenced to jail for marijuana offenses in 2019,” the study found. “It is clear, however, that very few marijuana cases charged in circuit court — only 16% — result in either jail or prison time.”

“All told, 15% of all cases charged solely with marijuana possession result in a jail or prison sentence. Twenty-six percent of all possession with intent to deliver cases charged and 23% of all manufacture/deliver cases charged result in a jail or prison sentence.”The Badger Institute conducted the study after Governor Tony Evers painted his proposal to legalize recreational marijuana as a way to “reduce criminal justice system costs.”

“Very few Wisconsinites are being sent to prison or jail for marijuana-only related offenses,” said Grace in a news release. “That means that legalizing recreational marijuana will not have much of an impact on prison costs or population. Given this reality and the fact that marijuana possession receives only a civil penalty in many municipalities across the state, Wisconsin has in large part already decriminalized marijuana.”

What would the cost savings be? “Assuming sentences are only for one year, cost savings to the prison system would be around $1 million. Cost savings within the jail system are more difficult to estimate because rates differ at the county level, but the state rate for reimbursement to counties is $60 a day per inmate,” the Badger Institute says.


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Read the full policy brief here.

Governor Evers Proposed Legalizing Marijuana

Gov. Evers proposed legalizing marijuana in the State of Wisconsin and taxing it “like alcohol.” The proposal as part of his 2021-23 biennial budget. His plan “regulates and taxes marijuana much like alcohol” and “generates more than $165 million annually beginning in Fiscal Year 2023.

“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin—just like we do already with alcohol—ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state,” said Evers.

The governor noted that a 2019 Marquette University Law School poll found that nearly 60 percent of Wisconsinites want recreational marijuana legalized. The number jumps to 83% for medicinal marijuana. The governor previously proposed legalizing medical marijuana but legislative Republicans rejected the proposal.

The governor said he wants to set aside $80 million of the new marijuana revenue to fund “equity grants through the Department of Health Services, the Department of Administration, and the Department of Children and Families,” to fund grants to “underserved communities,” and to serve small, rural school districts.

“Under the governor’s proposal, marijuana would be taxed and regulated much like alcohol, and would be regulated by both the Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection,” the release says.

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