The rapid rise in both mainstream acceptance and legislative reform that cannabis has earned over the past decade can be attributed to a handful of significant social stigmas surrounding the plant finally going up in smoke.
Issues like veterans’ rights, social equity, alternative healing, and criminal justice reform have brewed a perfect storm of awareness by a general populace finally waking up to the fact that pretty much everything that they have been told about weed for their entire lives has been the real fake news.
In Part 1 of this article, we expressed our contempt for the odd tradition of American presidents waiting until the 11th hour of their time in power to grant a relatively small handful of clemencies, commutations, and pardons to those deemed worthy.
The boundaries of that presidential power are vague, which has led to some controversial decisions not just by the last president, but by others before him as well. Instead of focusing our anger on who does get pardoned, however, we tend to save that rage to fight for those who inevitably get left behind, and even more so, to fight a system that allows such a loophole for justice to go so rarely used.
Our last article looked at the story of cannabis prisoner Luke Scarmazzo, who has now watched two presidents come and go, and some of his peers in the prison system set free, while he has been left behind.
In this article we will look at some short- and long-term solutions that could not only get Luke back home with his family where he belongs but could potentially blaze that trail for all our cannabis prisoners.
MAKE IT SO, MR. PRESIDENT
Since taking office on January 20th, President Joe Biden has irked his Conservative critics over the number of Executive Orders he has signed, using the bully pulpit of the presidency to bypass the gridlock in the House and Senate to enact sweeping changes to both foreign and domestic policies.
You may remember Senator Bernie Sanders, then Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders, telling a crowd at an Iowa rally, “On my first day in office, through executive order, we will legalize marijuana in every state in this country.”
While that statement is sure to get cheers at a Bernie rally, it oversimplifies the issue of federal cannabis legalization which, due to its unique and complex nature, needs a multipronged approach.
The first thing that needs to happen is the complete removal of the cannabis plant from the Controlled Substances Act. It cannot be shifted from Schedule I down the list, it needs to be removed completely.
This is something that President Biden could do without the “help” of Congress. It would essentially put the power in the hands of the states to make their own markets and enforce their own rules which is pretty much what’s happening now.
As we have reported in our coverage of the MORE Act, any form of federal legalization or even decriminalization is almost sure to come with additional taxes, funneled directly to the Feds, which must lead to a demand from We the People that if Uncle Sam wants in on the weed game, first he has to free every non-violent cannabis prisoner.
It’s non-negotiable. Nobody gets left behind.
Of course, Biden’s power only extends to federal cases and prisoners, but that’s a good start.
Although he could not directly affect state cannabis cases, with the stroke of his pen the new president could put immense pressure on any states that did not want to follow his lead, much like the Feds already do to states that don’t impose 21+ alcohol sales laws, or seatbelt laws, or auto emissions standards, or…
Although we never had expectations that Biden, or anyone else, could solve this problem on Day 1, it still must remain a high priority for advocates looking to apply some pressure of their own on the new POTUS.
We call on President Joe Biden to release a proclamation that all federal and state prisoners currently serving time on non-violent cannabis charges be set free.
While that first solution may seem like a pipe dream to some, it is not outside the realm of possibility… and relatively soon.
Of course, when you are locked up, “relatively soon” is rarely soon enough.
In 2020 we saw headlines of prisoners across the country being released long before their posted end of sentence through what was dubbed as “Compassionate Release” programs.
Over a thousand inmates were released under similar circumstances over the summer as our prisons became deadly hotspots for COVID-19.
Cesal, who had been serving a life sentence since 2002, was an insulin-dependent diabetic at the time of his release, so was deemed as a vulnerable target for Coronavirus and an eligible candidate for home confinement.
As happy as we were, and are, for Mr. Cesal (whose sentence was officially commuted by President Trump on 01/19/2021), Luke Scarmazzo and tens of thousands of others were left behind.
Much like the presidential pardon process itself, why are we reserving such powers for such rare occasions? Why must we be in the midst of a global pandemic to consider the many benefits of “home confinement” or commutation and expungement for non-violent cannabis prisoners?
In 2020, cannabis was given the badge of “Essential”, all while its old badge of “Compassionate” faded further.
President Biden, we call on you to demand the Compassionate Release of all non-violent cannabis prisoners currently serving time and we demand that you pressure state Governors and Attorneys General to do the same.
PRIOR CONVICTION REFORM
In our first article, we proposed Mass Pardon Mondays, where President Biden can sit by the fire and do the right fuckin thing by releasing as many non-violent cannabis prisoners as time allows… then pick up right where he left off come next Monday.
C’mon man! You could have this shit done by June, Joe!
In a recent chat with cannabis reform activist Weldon Angelos of MISSION[GREEN], we came to realize that pardons are only a part of the solution.
Angelos, another recipient of a Trump pardon (December 2020), explained that a pardon might get you out of prison – which is a great first step – they still leave you as a convicted felon which can cripple a person’s ability to ever truly be free.
This is why expungement is such a crucial part of the puzzle of Prior Conviction Reform.
Until he is granted a full expungement, Angelos is still a felon which limits his opportunities for employment, housing, benefits, and more, even though the damn President of the United States of America personally acknowledged that he had already done too much time for his so-called crimes.
This is why expungement must be a foundational plank for any attempt at federal cannabis reform, and all future attempts at state-level reform. As we keep harping on, the feds must also put pressure on anti-cannabis states to follow suit, or pay a price. Again, this is non-negotiable.
Prior Conviction Reform is an intentionally broad term, though.
In speaking with Angelos about his friend Luke Scarmazzo, we came to the conclusion that Luke’s pardon could very likely have been denied due to a prior, and totally unrelated, violent charge on his record.
If true, that is about as unAmerican as it gets.
That seems like a textbook example of Double Jeopardy – being charged twice for the same crime.
When we talk about non-violent cannabis crimes, we don’t mean a person must have displayed zero violence for their entire lives, and as advocates, we must refuse to allow that to be twisted into a technicality.
It’s really quite simple – we are saying it is immoral and unacceptable to have people incarcerated at the federal or state level doing time for past crimes that are now legal, regulated business plans that the states (and soon the Feds) are quite literally profiting from.
Cannabis prisoners are our focus, but this same playbook can be run to free tens or even hundreds of thousands of other non-violent prisoners who are trapped in the corrupt for-profit prison system, and millions more Americans who deserve the clean slate that comes with expungement.
We can envision a day when our heroes in the prisoner advocacy space can finally retire from that incredibly emotional endeavor, knowing in their hearts that they have accomplished their missions.
Every day that passes between now and then is one too many.