In a surprise move last week, the White House requested defense attorneys to submit the names of inmates convicted of low-level drug crimes as possible candidates for presidential clemency. On Thursday Deputy Attorney General James Cole told an eloquence of lawyers at the New York State Bar Association that the Justice Department wanted to send more names to the president for consideration. “There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole observed in his remarks. “We need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice.”

This announcement comes on the heels of President Obama’s directive last month to commute the sentences of eight people serving long sentences for crack cocaine cases. In 2010 Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act that eliminated the sentencing disparities between powered crack and cocaine; but left approximately 8,000 people behind bars for crimes that no longer carried long prison terms. The current Cole announcement is seen as continuing the administration’s efforts to get low-level drug offenders out of prison; but it remains to be seen if presidential clemency will extend to cannabis. 

Despite a well-known national shift towards marijuana legalization approximately 60,000 to 100,000 US citizens remain incarcerated exclusively for cannabis. Last year, attorneys for HIGH TIMES, with help from Beth Curtis of LifeForPot.comfiled a petition for executive clemency on behalf of five federal pot prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana offenses, and, to date, has not received a response. Following Cole’s announcement last week, HIGH TIMES counsel Michael Kennedy and David Holland re-filed those petitions for immediate consideration. 

“This is a true sea change of presidential philosophy and the exercise of pardon power bestowed in that office,” attorney Holland explained noting that Obama has granted clemency less frequently than any modern president. “The president has resorted to his discretionary pardon and clemency power to wield his newly found sense of social justice. It is too bad that the justice system will have to look to the pardon power as the safety valve rather than Congress taking the initiative and changing the outdated and oppressive laws in the first place.”

Keith Stroup, founder and lead counsel for the National Organization of Marijuana Laws, said Mr. Cole’s announcement “is a good start. This is the first time the Department of Justice has asked for recommendations on who might deserve clemency.” Stroup suggested that Obama might be thinking of his legacy as his second term unfolds. “What really matters is how many of those recommendations are acted upon. What we really hope to see over the next few weeks is a list of several thousand non-violent marijuana offenders that are going to be pardoned and released.”

Earlier this month in an editorial on this website, HIGH TIMES Editor-in-Chief Chris Simunek called for the leader of the Choom Gang to do just that: “Thousands… are doing time for growing, selling and possessing amounts of marijuana that will look infinitesimal in comparison to what one legal pot dispensary in Denver will sell in a single month,” Mr Simunek wrote. “If President Obama wants to address the disparities inherent in an unjust law, he should consider the fates of those in jail right now for offenses that that are now sanctioned and legal in Washington and Colorado, and sign an act of mass clemency for non-violent pot prisoners at both the state and federal levels.”