After spending nearly a decade behind bars for selling a small amount of marijuana, Derek Harris is finally going to be free to reunite with his loved ones.
Who is Derek Harris?
Derek Harris is a military veteran who served the United States during Operation Desert Storm. According to his family, when Harris returned home from overseas, he was a different man than the one who left to fight for his country. Like many others, after his time in the Gulf War, Harris developed a substance abuse problem. His issues with drugs lead to a series of petty offenses, including theft of property under $500 and distribution of cocaine. These incidents culminated in 2008, when Harris was arrested in Louisiana for selling a police officer .69 grams of cannabis.
Initially, Harris was convicted and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in 2012 prosecutors argued that Harris should be resentenced under the Habitual Offenders Law. Judge Durwood Conque of Louisiana agreed and sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His court-appointed Public Defender made no attempt to appeal this ruling.
“Nothing that he did deserved life without the possibility of parole,” Harris’s older brother Antoine Harris told The Appeal during a phone interview.
While incarcerated, Harris attempted to challenge the excessiveness of the decision, and argued that he had not received adequate legal representation. In 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled against Harris, but Judge Sylvia Cooks disagreed.
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem. It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law.” Judge Cooks wrote.
Harris’ new attorney, Cormac Boyle, once again presented the argument that Harris received ineffective legal assistance during his post-conviction sentencing. This time, the Supreme Court of Louisiana agreed that his sentence was too harsh.
Justice Wiemer wrote that, in his opinion, Harris “developed a substance abuse problem after returning from his honorable military service in Desert Storm, and his prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs.”
Wiemer also noted that the original trial judge said of Harris that he was “not a drug kingpin” and didn’t fit what they thought of “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.”
A new sentence of nine years time served was handed down to Harris, though the exact date of his actual release has yet to be determined—Boyle hopes to have him freed soon.
Cormac Boyle told CNN that Harris is looking forward to being a free man, and that he plans on relocating to Louisville after his release to be closer to his family in Kentucky. He’s excited to meet his nephews. It’s been nearly a decade since Derek and his brother Antoine have seen one another in person.
President Barack Obama’s high school and collegiate cannabis use is no secret. Obama discusses his hot-boxing Hawaiian “choom gang” in his memoir and his college toking even got its own Key & Peele skit. The current president even invented the term “roof hits” for his friends.
But aside from democratic comments on marijuana reform, Obama has never even attempted to make light of his youthful foray with marijuana–until last night. Commenting on his suddenly high ratings at the annual Correspondent’s Dinner, Obama made the perfect comparison between his newfound popularity and his college years:
Perhaps Obama is foreshadowing the DEA’s imminent decision on cannabis’ rescheduling or perhaps he’s simply hinting at his real opinion on marijuana reform. Or perhaps he’s simply just having fun at his last correspondent’s dinner.
Whatever the reasoning behind this smokey joke, it’s neat to see the President of the United States speak tongue-in-cheek about the nation’s fastest growing enterprise.
While an increasing number of states consider the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, federal authorities have continued to enforce strict Congressional laws that, technically speaking, outlaw the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis in any form and for any reason — anywhere in the United States.
It’s possibly not overly coincidental that Barack Obama recently spoke out in support of medical cannabis when being interviewed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. On April 21, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Michele Leonhart will be “retiring” her role as chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in May. Leonhart, depicted by even mainstream media as a Luddite who played it by the book, refused to ever admit that cannabis might offer medicinal value. Under testimony before Congress, she even refused to recognize that cannabis might be safer than hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamines.
Leonhart’s behavior has been lockstep with marijuana’s categorization under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Spanning back to the Nixon administration in 1970, this classification has prohibited the research necessary to prove the medical efficacy of cannabis for a wide range of diseases and ailments.
Recently, 20 lawmakers on the House Oversight committee logged a vote of “no confidence” for Ms. Leonhart’s leadership of the DEA. This was in response to the latest scandal involving drug cartel-funded prostitution parties in Columbia in which DEA agents participated. This inevitably led to AG Holder’s announcement.
Medical Research Needed
With no hard medical evidence, agencies like the DEA and the Department of Justice have been able to say “There’s no medical value, Schedule I makes sense.” But, in a nasty Catch 22, maintaining cannabis as a Schedule I drug has prevented the medical research necessary to prove to the government — and voters in both parties — that cannabis offers solid and significant medical benefits.
With Leonhart no longer warming the DEA chief’s seat in a few short weeks, Obama has the opportunity to prove the sincerity of his recent support for “science-based” medical cannabis — and correct his mistake of appointing Leonhart in the first place.
He can appoint a scientist or senior medical researcher, signaling the administration’s approach to all drugs to be one of health policy, not criminal enforcement. If the new chief recognized the need to reclassify cannabis as Schedule II, it would spur countless research studies and expand entrepreneurial efforts in legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Alaska.
Obama told Gupta during his interview with CNN:
“…not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue, but I’m also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.”
There is already an effort in Congress to reclassify cannabis to Schedule II that’s being spearheaded by Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Dean Heller called the CARERS (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States) Act.
CARERS is a bipartisan bill that, if it became law, would allow states to legalize medical marijuana without federal interference. It would also allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend cannabis to veterans suffering from brain injury, neurological disorders, and PTSD. In addition, the bill would legalize high CBD strains of marijuana, making them viable medical treatments on a national level (especially for treatment-resistant epilepsy in both children and adults).
Is Obama Sincere?
If Obama wants to validate his own words in support of medical marijuana, he will appoint a new DEA chief that supports rescheduling and, by extension, robust research into the medical efficacy of cannabis. In addition, he should openly support the CARERS Act, possibly giving the bill the momentum it needs to become law and begin the inevitable recognition, legalization, and regulation of medical marijuana on the part of the federal government.
For a late second term president who might be looking for a positive legacy — one that doesn’t involve terrorism, war, corporate bailouts, and a lagging economy — pushing forth the first federal-level medical marijuana legislation could go a long way in terms of public opinion (all of which indicates that the majority of citizens support medical cannabis).