A new petition asks President Obama to commute the sentences of five federal prisoners sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
[These five] petitioners are each serving life sentences without possibility of parole for their common crime: selling marijuana. These crimes in common and the criminal histories of these men involve absolutely no allegations of violence. Petitioners are well into their sixties, the age of normal retirement. Each has served at least 15 years in prison, exclusively for selling marijuana. Indeed, the average length of incarceration each of the five Petitioners has endured is 19 years. Without presidential clemency, each will die in prison.
So begins the first shot across the bow in the effort to free long-term marijuana prisoners in the wake of the landmark votes in Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Filed shortly after President Obama’s reelection in November 2012, this appeal for executive clemency seeks commutation or immediate parole consideration for five federal prisoners: John Knock, Paul Free, William Dekle, Larry Duke, and Charles Cundiff. Nearly two years in the making, the petition is the result of the combined efforts of Michael Kennedy and David Holland, two New York attorneys, and Beth Curtis, the creator of the website LifeforPot .com and the sister of the aforementioned John Knock.
Thus far, Obama has been decidedly stingy with pardons and commutations, granting only 23 as of January 2013. Of those pardoned, only one person had served significant prison time: Eugenia Marie Jennings, who was sentenced in 2002 to 20 years for possession with intent to distribute 13.9 grams of crack. Despite the president’s pardon record, Curtis believes this is one issue he could address without a risk of political fallout.
“Prominent individuals on the left and the right are advocating for the legalization of this plant and would feel comfortable with this commutation request,” she explains. “Since these five inmates have all been imprisoned for over 15 years, they have more than paid their dues, and a commutation will save taxpayers millions of dollars. This commutation is fiscally responsible, compatible with civil liberties – and it’s the right thing to do.”
When Curtis created LifeforPot.com, the initial reaction she got from most people was sheer disbelief that there could still be prisoners serving such long sentences for nonviolent marijuana crimes.
“Most Americans do not understand sentencing,” Curtis says. “They do not know about the role of mandatory minimums in the federal system. They do not know that, in effect, conspiracy laws make it possible for prosecutors to charge and try you for crimes you were not involved in and had no knowledge of. On top of that, there is the sentencing ‘enhancement’ that a defendant receives for deciding to go to trial instead of taking a plea agreement. This means that somewhere between 93 and 96 percent of defendants who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial are found guilty and receive sentences that may be six times higher than those who accept a plea.”
When it comes to American attitudes toward pot, we live in a far different world today than existed 15 years ago, when the five men who are the subject of this petition were sentenced. The sheer volume of marijuana that is sold legally under state law in one year by one of the busiest medical dispensaries dwarfs the amounts for which these people were tried, convicted, and sent to prison. There is no vast outcry at the fact that today, marijuana is sold openly in a number of medical states – yet the impact upon society by this loosening of the laws has been minimal.
And while none of these prisoners was selling marijuana for medicinal use, their sentences were based on the erroneous assumption that marijuana, as a Schedule I narcotic, is a substance that has no proven medical value and that is more harmful than morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine. As any unbiased review of the scientific research indicates, this is simply not the case. In allowing medical marijuana to blossom into a quasi-legal multimillion-dollar industry, the federal government has, in effect, admitted that marijuana use does not represent a significant threat to the health and welfare of American society.
When asked recently if the federal government planned to intervene in the wake of the state initiatives in Washington and Colorado, Obama replied, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry. It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”
The foundation of the argument for punishing marijuana distribution with severe sentences has collapsed since these men were sent to prison. Their cases must be reexamined through the prism of this subsequent enlightenment. This appeal for clemency is the only hope of freedom for five men who were effectively sentenced to die in prison for an act that is now legal in two states.
It is our hope that when the president considers this petition, he sees that the decision he must make is as obvious as the injustice it addresses.