Life in Prison For Pot: It’s Past Time for Presidential Pardons

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UPDATE: On 3/5/15 Larry Duke was granted an immediate release from prison, after serving 26 years for a non-violent cannabis-only offense. Larry believes that his successful sentence reduction process could set a new precedent for releasing others incarcerated for similar offenses. Click here for more information

The world is changing, and cannabis activists are celebrating those changes. Legal recreational cannabis sales are happening in Colorado. Members of the US Congress are lobbying for cannabis to be removed from Schedule I. President Obama recently admitted that cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol, and spoke about racially disparate arrests.  Last December, President Obama commuted the long-term sentences of 8 federal inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses. The US justice department last month offered to hear clemency requests for low-level drug offenders who were sentenced under outdated laws.

So in light of all the above, isn’t it well past time to offer clemency to prisoners serving life for non-violent cannabis offenses?

“As marijuana is being legalized by the degree state by state, it seems more and more unseemly that citizens are serving egregious prison sentences for this plant,” says Beth Curtis, founder of the website Life For Pot, and sister of John Knock, who is serving a life sentence for a cannabis conviction. “I would advocate for a systemic or group clemency for those non-violent offenders convicted of marijuana offenses…Group clemency has a fine historical tradition and has been used by Presidents since George Washington. There is nothing groundbreaking about it.”

The following is a speech I made at a “Smokedown Prohibition” event in Philadelphia more than a year ago. Sadly, the views and the call to action in the speech are just as valid now as they were then – and can even be considered more urgent, because we have been celebrating more cannabis reform victories, and because these prisoners have spent yet another year behind bars, a year of their lives that they and their families will never get back:

We have a lot to celebrate. The victories in Washington and Colorado, new medical states Massachusetts and Connecticut. The first medical marijuana dispensary in New Jersey just opened for business. We’ve gotten a lot of press, and people around the country finally seem to be coming to their senses about marijuana.

But I don’t really feel right celebrating, and neither should you. While we’re out here celebrating our freedom and having a party, there are an awful lot of men and women out there who don’t have the same opportunity.

Take a look around you: how many black people do you see? It’s not surprising – would you be out here smoking freely and holding your sign if you knew that people of your race were disproportionately arrested for marijuana in Philly by a ratio of nearly 5 to 1? And it’s certainly not because black people smoke more marijuana – it’s because of racial profiling and a court system that is corrupt and racist.

What about the people who produce and dispense our medical marijuana? In California, dispensary owners and workers continue to be arrested and incarcerated, their assets taken away, their businesses and homes seized in property forfeiture. These people who have dedicated their lives to helping the most vulnerable people in society have now lost everything.

And of course, there are still many people serving time for marijuana-related offenses in prisons across the country. While we’re out here getting high, they are sitting in prison cells, dreaming about freedom.

So, I’m sorry to be a buzz kill, but really, you need one. I need one. We all need one. We’re already pot smokers and hemp advocates and freedom lovers, and we’re already proud to be pot smokers and hemp advocates and freedom lovers, or else we wouldn’t be here. More and more of us are coming out of the closet every day, talking about marijuana openly and teaching our children that marijuana isn’t the evil gateway drug prohibitionists would have them believe. But there is always more that we can do.

Here’s just one thing, and I really hope that not only will you do it, that you’ll spread the word through social media, and make this whole thing explode. I have been writing back and forth with Larry Ronald Duke and Paul Free since a Philadelphia NORML Women’s Alliance letter writing event in June of 2012.

Larry is a Vietnam veteran, an inventor who gets excited talking about his plans for alternative energy. He always tells me to get more rest so I can be healthy.Paul has acted in some plays and on television, listens to classic rock, loves Broadway musicals, and bets on football once a year. Just two smart, kind, cool, interesting, normal guys you’d probably enjoy hanging out with. I’m sure they’d love to be here with us, but they can’t…Because both of them were arrested for non-violent marijuana-only offenses a few decades back, in the 80’s and 90’s. And both have been serving life sentences in prison since then.

They’re both now in their 60s. Without Presidential Clemency, both will die in prison. There is an online petition for clemency and commutation of life-without-parole sentences on behalf of Paul Free and Larry Duke, as well as William Dekle, John Knock, and Charles Cundiff.* These five Americans are serving life sentences without possibility of parole for their common crime: selling marijuana. None of these men have any history of violence. All are well into their sixties, the age of normal retirement. They could be your brothers, your fathers, your grandfathers. They do not deserve this. And I can’t celebrate our marijuana victories in good conscience knowing that they cannot celebrate alongside us.

Every signature is a message to these men that they have not been forgotten. It will only take a few minutes of your time, and it means everything to these men, and to me.

Please sign, and then share it with your friends and families, and then share it some more. Social media allows this phenomenon to grow exponentially. Don’t just “like” it on my Facebook page, don’t just say you’re going to sign it…Sign it. And share it. And share it. And share it some more. Every big movement started with one person. The people had their say in Washington and in Colorado and made historical changes. If enough voices say that marijuana prisoners deserve amnesty, the government will have to listen. And when these men and countless other marijuana prisoners are free, we can truly celebrate.

The petition that I referred to in the speech was an online signature drive in support of a 2012 petition for clemency filed by attorneys Michael Kennedy, David Holland, and Beth Curtis. To date, there has been no response from the Obama administration.

To sign a current ACLU petition for commutation of unjust life sentences for non-violent crimes, please click here.

Please visit for updates and to learn what you can do to help prisoners of the war on drugs. If you scroll down on the site’s homepage, you will find addresses for prisoners you can write to.

Click here to go to a website created to support Randy Lanier, who is serving a life sentence for a cannabis conviction.


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