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The Limits of Inmate Self-Reports

An argument we hear all the time in sentencing policy debates is that our prisons are chock full of harmless drug users, especially marijuana, and we can safely save piles of money by just letting them out.  The people making these arguments seem to have severely distorted pictures of how many drug "offenders" in state prisons are users rather than traffickers and how many are in for marijuana offenses rather than far more dangerous drugs.

Looking around for hard data on the latter point, I found a question in the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities that seemed to fill the bill.  They just asked the inmates who were in on drug charges which drug it was.  (Question S5Q13a, variable V0884.)  Great.  We're golden.  Here are the results from a sample of 3,686 questionnaires in the most recent survey available (2004):

Don't know:   2
Refused:       5
Blank:    3,679

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