On December 19th, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people convicted under harsh mandatory minimum statutes for crimes related to crack distribution. Each had served at least 15 years, and eight had been sentenced to life without parole. At the time these men and women were convicted, America was at the height of its so-called “crack epidemic,” and there was a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine offenses that had been written into law with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. That same bill instituted a five-year mandatory minimum sentence with no parole for possession of five grams of crack. One would have had to possess 500 grams of powdered cocaine to initiate the same mandatory sentence. (Part of the justification given at the time is the since-discounted theory that crack was more harmful and more addictive than powdered cocaine.) The result of this legislation was an 800 percent rise in the prison population. A 2002 study of the United States Sentencing Commission concluded that 79% of the new inmates were African-American, while whites and Latinos accounted for only 10% each of the influx.
Justly decried as inhuman and racially skewed, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was replaced by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. According to the President, last week’s commutations were an attempt to rectify the injustices of a discounted law. In a statement, President Obama noted that, if these prisoners, “had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year.”
Thousands sentenced under the revoked Anti-Drug Abuse Act remain in prison, and, while it’s good to see some movement at the executive level to correct this, one has to look at this act as a token gesture at best.
There is an obvious question to be asked here. If the President is commuting sentences based on the fact that legislation has changed, then where are the pot pardons? As of January 1, 2014, pot is legal for recreational use in the state of Colorado. Adult citizens of that state are able to walk into a dispensary and buy pot same as they can walk into a 7-11 today and buy beer. In Washington state, adults are allowed to possess up to an ounce, and retail marijuana businesses are supposed to open later in 2014. In addition to these reforms regarding recreational pot use, provisions for medical marijuana currently exist in 20 states and Washington DC.
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, but, by not interfering on these states’ implementation of medical and recreational marijuana, the feds have de facto allowed marijuana to be legalized in all of them.
Same as crack was given harsher sentencing guidelines in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act under the erroneous assumption that it was more dangerous than powdered cocaine, marijuana offenders have been the subject of severe sentencing due to the fact that pot is still a Schedule 1 narcotic. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration website, this means that pot is a drug, “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cannabis shares space on that list with heroin, LSD, Quaaludes, ecstasy and peyote.
The fact that medical pot is legal in 20 states and Washington DC unquestionably refutes the notion that it has no medical value, and goes a long way towards discounting the idea that it poses severe health risks.
So if prisoners were sentenced, under a flawed evaluation of pot’s public risk, for a crime that has been declared legal in numerous territories, why are they still in jail?
Last year, two New York lawyers, Michael Kennedy and David Holland, with help from Beth Curtis of LifeForPot.com, filed a petition for executive clemency on behalf of five federal prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana offences: John Knock, Paul Free, William Dekle, Larry Duke, and Charles Cundiff. That petition has yet to be answered.
A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union entitled, “A Living Death: Life Without Parole For Nonviolent Offenses,” includes the stories of 14 prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent marijuana-related crimes. Some of the tales beguile all reason, including those of two men from Louisiana, Dale Wayne Green and Fate Vincent Winslow, who were given life without parole for selling $20 and $10 worth of pot respectively to undercover cops, under that state’s multiple offender laws.
These are just the most egregious of the injustices being suffered by nonviolent pot prisoners. Thousands more 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. 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. Keeping these people in jail is not only a waste of resources and a squandering of thousands of lives, it is judicial hypocrisy and a mockery of American law.