From a reader:
Andrew and Jonah–
I worked as a prosecutor during my last year at law school in Oklahoma. I routinely handled misdemeanor drug cases. It was definitely not the case that personal-use marijuana arrests resulted in jail time. If someone was arrested, of course, they were booked into jail, where they would usually make bail immediately or at least spend the night. Occasionally an indigent defendant would spend a few days in jail if he could not post bond. But as a matter of punishments actually imposed–almost inevitably through plea bargaining–jail time was never even discussed for misdemeanor drug possession. It was usually community service, a drug rehab program, a conditional probation for 90 days or so, and a hefty fine.
Third time (and subsequent) misdemeanor possession automatically accelerated to a felony charge. This was usually pled down to a misdemeanor, perhaps with ten days in jail, perhaps none.
Felony drug crimes, on the other hand, were routinely bargained down to misdemeanor status. So we would see marijuana dealers caught for the first time or even the second time pleading guilty to possession, sometimes serving thirty days in the county jail. Hardcore repeat meth cooks, of which my county busted maybe one a week, could get sentenced to ten years and serve, oh, five or six in the state pen.
All of which to say that A: sentences are unique products of bargaining and context, and aggregated sentencing data is nearly useless for making policy predictions, and B: I am extremely skeptical of the legalization lobby’s propagandistic pipe dream of millions of ordinary Americans rotting in prison because the jackbooted thugs kicked in their door and found a dime bag in their medicine cabinet. Most of the people I saw who actually went to jail for drug offenses had messed up seriously enough, and/or often enough that it seemed perfectly reasonable to incarcerate them.