On March 31 President Barack Obama carried out the commutation of 22 federal inmates’ sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. He had done the same with eight federal inmates in December 2014 who had committed similar drug offenses.
Neil Eggleston, who is part of the White House counsel told the media that if these individuals had been sentenced under current laws, the time served would have already passed, and they would have been deemed as individuals who had already repaid their debt to society. He stated,
“Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.”
Over the past year several bold public statements have been made by Attorney General Eric Holder against the current mass incarceration environment in the United States. Including a number of promises from the administration to make enhancements to the commutation procedures.
Despite the positive rhetoric, President Obama has actually used his power less times than almost any other United States President in history to grant clemency.
There have been several advocacy groups, many made up of family members of incarcerated individuals, who have pressured President Obama significantly to do something about all of the people who are serving mandatory extended minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
The media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, Anthony Papa, stated, “I am elated that President Obama continues to use his executive powers to grant freedom to those drug offenders who have served draconian sentences.”
Papa went on to say that he was hopeful that this action will convey a message to State Governors as well, so that they can also use their power to grant clemency to individuals who have already served overly long sentences and deserve to get their lives and families back.
Anthony Papa served for 12 years under the famously harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York and was granted clemency in 1997.
If the United States is going to do anything about the issue of mass incarceration, there is a great deal of legislation that Congress must process.
The Smarter Sentencing Act would be at the forefront of this legislation, and it would give judges increased discretion during the sentencing process, decrease mandatory minimum sentences, and render retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
The war on drugs unfolded in the United States decades ago, but medical marijuana dispensaries are now being protected due to provisions in a recent federal spending bill.
The bill specifies that the Department of Justice is not allowed to use any part of their agency’s budget to pursue action against state-legal medical marijuana operations. Many businesses in states that legally allow marijuana for medical use have been raided for not complying with federal laws, even when they do comply with state laws. Once the spending bill goes into effect, these raids will no longer be permitted.
The bill was introduced by House Representatives Sam Farr and Dana Rohrabacher. Farr commented to the Huffington Post that this bill will ensure that federal tax dollars are used to prosecute criminals rather than restrict a patient’s legal use of marijuana. Reports estimate that almost $80 million per year has been spent to fight medical marijuana dispensaries during Obama’s administration. Farr also stated that more work needs to be done to align federal and state policies.
The new law means that medical marijuana dispensaries in 23 states will be protected from prosecution. Eleven states have also legalized the use of cannabidiol (CBD) oils, and this will also be protected. Cannabidiol is the marijuana cannabinoid known to be effective in the treatment of epilepsy. While state laws have permitted the use of marijuana for medical purposes, patients and their caregivers have repeatedly been arrested by the DEA for breaking federal drug laws. Marijuana remains listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, designating the plant as having zero recognized medicinal uses in the United States. Heroin and LSD are also Schedule I substances.
Americans for Safe Access released a statement praising the measure and noting that it will end the arrest and criminal conviction of patients using marijuana to ease medical conditions. Patients’ rights advocates are hopeful that the bill will lead to the end of civil asset forfeiture cases for patients as well.
Industrial hemp production is legalized in 18 states and will also be protected from prosecution under the regulations in the bill. Cannabis sativa is both marijuana and hemp. The difference is that hemp contains minimal amounts of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC. This number is less than 1.5 percent in hemp.
Research into hemp production is ongoing, and more than 12 states have introduced pieces of legislation to investigate hemp production or move forward with legalization of the process. For example, the DEA has permitted the state of Kentucky to begin a research program.
photo credit: Coleen Danger