Should we allow prisoners to smoke weed?

Research suggests pot makes for more peaceful prisons

Angry prisoner
(Image credit: Thinkstock)

When compared to the other illicit activities that occur behind bars, smoking pot ranks pretty low on the list of dangerous behavior. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the International Journal of Drug Policy (IJDP) suggests marijuana consumption could lead to more peaceful prison conditions.

The study, which focused on Swiss prisons, reveals that about 80 percent of prisoners and 50 percent of guards smoke pot. The Journal concluded:

Participants showed similar opinions on effects of cannabis use that were described both at individual and institutional levels: analgesic, calming, self-help to go through the prison experience, relieve stress, facilitate sleep, prevent violence, and social pacifier. [IJDP]

Although marijuana is illegal in Switzerland, prison officials turn a blind eye because smoking keeps prisoners calm and reduces violence, according to the study. Participants acknowledged the potential negative effects of marijuana use, including lethargy and antisocial behavior, but most agreed the consequences of a crackdown would be worse. Guards worried that ramping up regulation of cannabis use would lead to "violence, increased trafficking, and a shift to other drug use" among prisoners.

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A study of Danish prisons released in 2012 yielded similar results. Seventy-eight percent of the prison guards interviewed by researchers at the Aarhus University's Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research said they use their own discretion when they encounter marijuana, rather than following the official drug regulations.

"The guards bend the rules to maintain order," Torsten Kolind, one of the anthropologists who conducted the study, told Science Nordic. "Many inmates have smoked cannabis for several years before they were imprisoned. They often smoke as a way of dealing with personal problems. If the guards take away their weed, they become restless and it could result in trouble."

Denmark technically has a zero-tolerance policy on drug possession, meaning cannabis has the same legal status as heroine and methamphetamine. But the corrections officers said they were more likely to crack down on substances like cocaine or alcohol, because they can lead to erratic, violent behavior, whereas marijuana often renders prisoners more docile.

"The guards know the inmates," Kolind said. "If they see inmates who suffer from personal problems such as loneliness sitting there in their cell smoking weed, they understand why they need it. They may then just tell them to shut the door because it smells of weed."

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