Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Do marijuana prisoners deserve amnesty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNN commentary authored by Mike Riggs, who is the communications director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Though the commentary starts with a discussion of marijuana reforms, its real focus seems to be advocating wholesale federal drug sentencing reform. Here are excerpts: 

Since 2012, when voters in Colorado and Washington approved the tax and sale of recreational marijuana, the cognitive dissonance of America's drug penalties has become even more absurd.  Where we once incarcerated people for growing and selling "just a plant," we're now incarcerating people for growing and selling "just a plant" that tens of millions of people can grow and sell legally.

Marijuana is legal only in certain states, and illegal under federal law.  Still, it's worth asking what Congress would do with the thousands of pot offenders sent to federal prison each year if we repealed, or even just reformed, federal pot laws.

In 2010, Congress voted to change federal penalties for crack cocaine with the Fair Sentencing Act.  Prior to the law's passage, 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered the same mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. Congress reduced that disparity, from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, which significantly reduced crack cocaine sentences.  But Congress did nothing to change the sentences of the more than 8,000 federal crack prisoners who were locked up when the bill was signed into law.

So the repeal of federal marijuana laws could likely leave us with many thousands of federal pot prisoners serving sentences longer than what they'd receive in a post-reform courtroom....

If Congress changes marijuana laws without allowing currently imprisoned pot offenders to seek new sentences, should this president or the next simply throw open the gates?   Clemency feels particularly appropriate for marijuana prisoners, who sit in cells for trafficking and dealing while state legislators argue over how to spend the revenues generated from pot taxes and newspapers tell us how to incorporate the plant in our cooking....

In 2014, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced a Justice Department initiative to review the petitions of federal prisoners serving sentences longer than what they'd receive if sentenced today, and to grant clemency to those whose early release would not compromise public safety.  The second wave of clemencies granted since the initiative launched included both crack offenders and a single marijuana offender.

But clemency, by its very nature, benefits only a small number of people. Even if President Obama were to grant 2,000 commutations over the next 21 months — an unprecedented number — there are roughly 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison. The vast majority would be left to serve excessively long sentences.

Our drug policies — and not just those pertaining to marijuana — require sweeping, comprehensive, grand reform....  All drug offenders are getting a raw deal from our criminal justice system. It would be a mistake to say, "Let out the people who sell a drug that I'm comfortable with, and to hell with all the rest." Federal and state legislators need to address bad policies for all drug types, and then establish a clear route to resentencing for pot dealers — and everybody else.

Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Who decides | Permalink


As time passes Clemency Project 2014 looks a little like Lucy snatching the football away just as Charlie Brown attempts to kick it. An initial attorney contact with no follow up requires the patience of Job. That doesn’t even speak to the thousands that have not had an initial contact even though we’re in the second year of the initiative.

Yes, there does seem to be a strange and divisive sentiment that divides offenders who have received egregious sentences for various drugs and substances.
When I started the web site Life for Pot, I was specifically looking for nonviolent marijuana offenders who were sentenced to life without parole. I had contacts and requests for inclusion from offenders with all manner of offenses and drugs. They all wanted to be perceived as nonviolent marijuana only. Apparently it was considered a lesser offense with a better chance for sentencing relief.

The web site was so specific and limited but in order to be true, I had to screen them all. I’ve read hundreds of sentencing document from nonviolent drug offenders who are serving sentences of life without parole. The more exposure I’ve had the more troubled I’ve become.

I changed the subtext of the site from “Life without Parole – Release Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders” to "Life without Parole – Release Nonviolent Drug Offenders.” It was a change in perception only as the site was still Life for Pot.

My conclusion is that there are disturbing common elements in all nonviolent drug cases where the sentencing seems disproportionate to the offense. The elements are that the nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to life are likely to have been charged with conspiracy and exercised their 6th Amendment right to trial. It’s time to address the core issues.

Posted by: beth | May 2, 2015 12:51:12 PM

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