Published in partnership with MintPress News.
AUSTIN, Texas — Two men serving life sentences for marijuana-related convictions were among the dozens of nonviolent drug offenders who recently had their sentences commuted by President Barack Obama.
While advocates for reform of the three-decade war on drugs applaud Obama’s efforts to free hundreds from unfair sentences, some also fear the president hasn’t gone far enough to change federal laws that leave thousands more imprisoned, with some still facing life in prison.
“At the federal level there’s not been a significant change in law,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in an interview with MintPress News.
While Obama has granted the early release of some prisoners, including 97 in the latest group announced on Dec. 18, the laws that put them behind bars remain largely unchanged, Armentano noted. “We’ve seen very little difference in the way marijuana laws are enforced, and we’ve seen very little, if any, reduction in the prevalence of marijuana-related arrests and, at the federal level, incarceration.”
Without sweeping changes, the U.S. prison population will continue to swell under the next president, who may be even less likely to commute sentences in his or her first term.
The war on weed, by the numbers
According to FBI data analyzed by The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham in September, at least 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014. As Ingraham noted, “that’s 1,700 people per day, or more than 1 per minute.” Ingraham, who specializes in analysis of drug policy and other government data, noted that the data reflects an increased focus on marijuana over time:
Nationwide, more than 1 in 20 arrests were for simple marijuana possession. Twenty years ago, near the dawn of the drug war, fewer than 2 percent of arrests were for pot possession. But that rate rose steadily throughout the 1990s and 2000s, even as those years saw a shift toward less-restrictive marijuana laws at the state level.
NORML’s Armentano told MintPress that marijuana arrests have fallen in some states as a result of legalization or loosening of laws. At the same time, though, some states have seen increases in marijuana-related arrests — including Virginia, where The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman reported on a Drug Policy Alliance study of arrests in the state between 2003 and 2013, which found that “[a]lthough marijuana arrests dropped 6.5 percent nationwide between 2003 and 2014, possession arrests in Virginia increased by 76 percent during that period.”
There’s also often a dramatic racial disparity in marijuana arrests. According to Jackman’s analysis of a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, “black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana and … 88 percent of the country’s marijuana arrests were for possession.”
Locally speaking, based on the Drug Policy Alliance study, “arrests of black people in Virginia for marijuana increased by 106 percent from 2003 to 2013, accounting for 47 percent of the state’s arrests even though Virginia’s population is only 20 percent black.”
Armentano emphasized that the vast majority of people imprisoned for drug offenses are there for drug trafficking. And, at least on the federal level, the numbers of people incarcerated for marijuana have largely held steady, despite Obama’s interventions.
In an October report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Sentencing Commission identified 94,678 federal drug offenders serving prison time as of 2012, based on the most serious offense they faced in the case of people sentenced for multiple crimes. Thirty-five percent of those prisoners had no or minimal criminal history before being sentenced to prison on a drug offense, but 24 percent had used a weapon in their most recent offense.
In November, Armentano published his analysis of the government drug offender data to NORML’s website. He identified 11,533 prisoners, or about 12 percent of the total number of federal drug offenders, who were imprisoned primarily or solely for marijuana-related charges. He also identified several other key facts about these marijuana prisoners:
Nearly half (44.3 percent) of federal marijuana inmates are offenders with minimal criminal histories who have not previously served time in prison. Eight-five percent of marijuana offenders did not possess a firearm.
Over a third (36.5 percent) of federal marijuana prisoners are age 40 or older. Thirty-five percent of federal marijuana prisoners are not US citizens.
Armentano also noted that these statistics remain almost unchanged since 2004, when a previous dataset was released by Justice Statistics.
Each of these statistics represents thousands of real lives potentially ruined by drug charges. As Ingraham pointed out in The Washington Post, even arrests for possession can be devastating:
An arrest can mean missing a day of work and getting fired. It can lead to a record that prevents a person from finding work in the future. If a person is detained and unable to post bail, an arrest can mean weeks in jail waiting for trial. In extreme cases, an arrest can end in death.
Life in prison for pot
Beth Curtis maintains the website “Life For Pot,” which she began as a way to advocate for a handful of pot prisoners facing life sentences, often for conspiracy charges.
Her brother, John Knock, 68, is one of the most well-known of these unfortunate prisoners and the inspiration for Curtis’ advocacy work. Knock was a first-time offender, and he had never been accused of violence. In 1994, Knock got involved in a scheme to import marijuana along with a group of associates, including a longtime friend who was an attorney.
That marijuana never existed. The proposed sale was actually a “reverse sting,” an operation in which a confidential informant — in this case a police officer indicted for other crimes who was working undercover for the DEA — offers to sell drugs to the group.
Knock’s been imprisoned since 1996, when he was arrested in France before being extradited to the United States in 1999. While others implicated in the sting took plea bargains, Knock chose to go to trial. In 2000 he was convicted on two counts — conspiracy to import a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute — that each carried a life sentence. He received an additional 20 years for conspiracy to launder drug money. The 68-year-old is currently serving his sentence at USP Allenwood, a high-security federal prison in White Deer, Pennsylvania.
“When John’s appeals were completed, I wanted to know if there were other nonviolent marijuana offenders who had received life without parole and I started the web site Life for Pot and began to gather their stories,”Curtis wrote on her website.
Before selecting a prisoner to support on her website, Curtis carefully reviews their criminal record to make sure they haven’t committed any acts of violence. At one time, she had documented about 17, but a few have been released by the president and about a dozen remain on her lists. The government doesn’t maintain exact numbers, but, in July, Mother Jones identified about 69 “marijuana lifers.”
Among those still facing life sentences are Michael Pelletier, 58. Curtis said Pelletier has applied for clemency but is still awaiting the disposition of his case.
At the time of his conviction in 2008, local media described Pelletier as a criminal “who was convicted of running a multi-million-dollar cross-border marijuana smuggling operation from his wheelchair while collecting disability checks.” In a brief autobiography on Curtis’ website, he downplayed his role in the case:
The truth of the case is that I was more of a “facilitator” than a “distributor.” I learned that if I purchased a quantity of marijuana, rather than just a ‘dime’ bag I could satisfy my desire to smoke, get money back with a small profit and provide a familiar and trustworthy source of the marijuana to my friends and associates.
Although he admits to distributing marijuana, his initial interest in the substance was medical:
The marijuana helped to relieve my physical problems and it helped me to cope with my condition mentally as well. … The marijuana supplied some measure of relief from the pain, spasms and depression. I was on disability and the funds to purchase the marijuana were very scarce.
A pair of prior convictions contributed to Pelletier’s life sentence and, according to Curtis, mandatory minimum sentencing laws had changed between his previous convictions and his third, leaving Pelletier unprepared for his steep sentence.
Two prisoners supported by Curtis were among those selected for release this month: Charles Cundiff and William “Billy” Ervin Dekle, a 65-year-old Marine Corps veteran arrested in the 1990s for smuggling marijuana into Florida by air.
Steve Nelson described Cundiff’s case for U.S. News and World Report last week:
The former construction and nursery worker’s life sentence began in 1992 after he was busted attempting to buy marijuana. He was charged with conspiracy and, despite prior convictions for growing or possessing marijuana, chose to go to trial. Others took plea deals and got less time.
Although Cundiff, who is now 69 and fighting skin cancer and recovering from a debilitating back surgery, was granted clemency, his release has been delayed for a year. It’s unclear why there’s a delay when others will get out more immediately, but Curtis told Nelson she’s grateful he’s getting out at all:
“When the alternative was dying chained to a hospital bed, it puts it in a little different context,” she says of the one-year delay for Cundiff. “If I didn’t know there were so many [inmates] in that situation who weren’t going to get out at all, I would probably protest the one-year wait.”
‘Anxious’ prisoners await their fates
Time is running out to fix the system that even former Attorney General Eric Holder described as “broken” in 2013. Initially announcing that as many as 10,000 prisoners might be eligible for Obama’s clemency program, according to The Washington Post on Dec. 5, other Justice Department officials now claim “the number is closer to 1,000 or 2,000.”
Clemency Project 2014, the working group of lawyers and advocates that’s defended prisoners like Pelletier, has struggled to cope with a massive wave of petitions. According to the Post, “[m]ore than 33,000 prisoners — about 15 percent of the federal prison population — applied for clemency.”
For the prisoners who remain inside like Knock and Pelletier, Curtis told MintPress it can be hard to maintain hope as the clock runs out on Obama’s term in office. “The rest of them wait for attorneys,” she told MintPress. “There’s almost no way for them to find out their progress.”
Many of the prisoners are trying to file their own petitions, she said, rather than waiting for the Clemency Project. “They’re all pretty anxious.”
For Armentano, of NORML, it’s a sign that deeper reforms are needed to end the suffering of thousands of nonviolent marijuana prisoners of the drug war. “This administration clearly recognizes that the present enforcement of marijuana prohibition and marijuana criminalization is out of step with both public opinion and common sense,” he told MintPress.
Unfortunately, he continued, “nothing this administration has done purports to bring about a long-term solution to marijuana policy.”
“In fact, none of the proposals and none of the actions made by this administration will extend beyond the length of this administration.”
“Without a change in federal law, it is going to be business as usual when it comes to the prioritization and enforcement of marijuana prohibition,” he warned.