Law prof criticizes ‘pernicious myth’ that marijuana prosecutions drive mass incarceration

John Pfaff of Fordham University’s law school argued that marijuana convictions account for only a small percentage of incarcerations.

Pfaff claimed that even releasing all drug offenders from prison would have a negligible effect on racial disparities in incarceration, which he argues are driven primarily by violent crime.

A Fordham University (FU) School of Law professor is challenging the prevailing narrative that mass incarceration is driven by unjust drug convictions and that this trend is to blame for racial disparities in incarceration rates. 

Dr. John Pfaff, who specializes in prisons and criminal justice, issued his most recent criticisms in response to an Aug. 16 Vice News article on WNBA player Brittney Griner’s marijuana conviction in Russia.

The Vice piece attempted to draw a comparison between Russia’s harsh sentencing measures and similar trends in the United States, which “regularly doles out harsh sentences to people, especially Black Americans, for weed crimes," the article claims.

To support its argument that the United States “regularly” imposes harsh sentences for marijuana offenses, the Vice News article included several anecdotes about Americans receiving harsh sentences for marijuana possession.

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“This is, as always, simply not true,” Pfaff rejoined to the Vice News piece on Twitter.

“Does the US sometimes give 9 years for weed? Yes, but so so so rarely. This is perhaps the most pernicious myth [about] US prison [populations] out there.”

Pfaff has published extensively on incarceration, including the book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration-and How to Achieve Real Reform.

The book traces the origins of mass incarceration not to “the failed War on Drugs, draconian sentencing laws, [and] an increasing reliance on private prisons,” but rather to “the mid-1990s, when prosecutors began bringing felony charges against arrestees about twice as often as they had before.”

“Only 14% of [people] in US prisons are in for ANY drug[,]” Pfaff continued in response to Vice. “And noisy data suggests ~10% of those—or 1% to 2% overall—are in for marijuana. And almost all of those are in for (nebulously defined) trafficking.”

Pfaff goes on to contrast Griner’s sentence of nine years in Russia with the “median time to release for drug crimes” in the United States of one year.

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Pfaff then noted that two percent of the incarcerated population in the United States still amounts to 26,000 people, “and costs can’t justify the returns."

"But we’ve convinced ourselves that we can meaningfully decarcerate just dealing w[ith] ‘easy’ marijuana cases. We simply cannot," he wrote.

Pfaff concluded his rebuttal by addressing claims that racism in the War on Drugs appreciably contributed to racial disparities in incarceration. 

“[I]f we released EVERY person in state prisons for ALL drugs tomorrow, the racial disparity would barely budge. Violent crimes, not drugs, drive racial disparities in prison [populations].”

Campus Reform reached out to Pfaff and Fordham University for comment. This article will be updated as needed with any replies.