Dismiss Cannabis Convictions

Journal Back to Archive06.10.20

To date, Cannabis has been legalized for medical use in 33 states and legalized for recreational use in 11 states plus Washington D.C., leaving the rest of the U.S. to either follow suit or remain opposed to the legal use of the plant. 

According to a Pew Research Study taken in 2019, 67 percent of Americans support legalizing weed. Most will agree that the chill vibes that come with smoking Cannabis can make for an even better trip to the beach or even just a better Netflix and chill. 

Regardless of Mary Jane’s innocent pleasure principle, those in favor of it are simply not enough to sway the entire country to legalize. The U.S. spends more than 3 billion dollars on enforcement of Cannabis prohibition yearly.

FBI data released in 2018 shows an increase in marijuana arrests even after legalization. Even though it was small (+6k), it is surprising. Forbes reported that an average of one marijuana bust happens roughly every 48 seconds. 

Having an arrest for Cannabis can mark a person with a permanent criminal record. As a result, this can strip them of many crucial opportunities like employment, child custody, housing, and financial aid. So, it comes as a relief that 22 states have decriminalized Cannabis, eliminating the threat of jail time for small amounts of possession. Additionally, California (where Cannabis is legal) has moved to reduce or fully dismiss over 60k cannabis related convictions.

Although Cannabis usage is shown to have equal usage rates amongst races in the U.S., reports from the ACLU prove that Black people have been 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for the offense before legalization. Between 2014 and 2016, in New York City alone, 86 percent of pot arrests were of Black people and latinos.

One example of the double standards is the story of Fate Vincent Winslow. Fate is a Black man who was arrested in 2008 in Louisiana for selling a twenty dollar bag of weed to an undercover cop. Winslow was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Fate had played middle man for the drug deal by getting the weed from a white dealer. He made a five dollar commission from the sale that cost him his life. Winslow was homeless at the time and needed the five dollars to buy food. The white weed dealer was not arrested. 

“Life for two bags of weed…people kill people and get five years.” Winslow spoke of his harsh sentence

He is still serving time in the overcrowded Louisiana State Penitentiary. Winslow described the dorm at the prison as being “packed in like sardines” because the prisoners are double bunked with no air conditioning. “How is it fit to get 86 bodies no air?” He questioned. “There is no life in prison. Just living day by day waiting to die in prison,” Winslow expressed. 

You can demand that Fate Winslow be freed by signing the petition here.

A Black musician named Yirim Seck of Seattle, Washington, was also one of many sellers arrested and convicted during the unlegalized decade. He refers to his past offense as “a blemish that will just never go away.”

Having a marijuana conviction made it hard for Seck to find work and a home. “I was constantly paying application fees for them to run my record,” Seck explained. “And being denied housing opportunities.” 

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pointed out the bias when she stated that the war on drugs “had implicit racial bias in it.”  The misdemeanor marijauna convictions impact so many lives of people of color just like Seck, not only in Seattle but also across the country. Mayor Durkan knows that the problem needs to be solved and she has taken action by teaming with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes in February 2018 to announce the plan to “vacate convictions and dismiss charges for all misdemeanor marijuana possession.” You can watch the announcement here.

Unfortunately, the plan only affects those convicted of minor pot crimes in Seattle Municipal Court. People like Seck, who were convicted of marijuana felonies before a legal marijuana market was formed couldn’t benefit from it, as their convictions are not considered minor. 

In May of 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that grants clemency to those who have a single misdemeanor marijuana conviction on their criminal record. This new law has the potential to impact nearly 60,000 individuals with small time pot convictions in the state. 

NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), a non-profit organization based in D.C., aims to move public opinion to achieve the legalization of non-medical marijuana in the United States. NORML “supports the removal of all criminal penalties for the private possession and responsible use of marijuana by adults, including the cultivation for personal use, and the casual nonprofit transfers of small amounts,” and “supports the development of a legally controlled market for Cannabis.”

NORML supports those working to legalize marijuana, as well as those fighting prosecution under marijuana laws. In 2009, NORML wrote a petition to President Obama which suggested that drug abuse should be treated as a health issue not a criminal issue. The petition urged President Obama to move away from the “War on Drugs” paradigm. 

In 2012, the company behind High Times Magazine filed a historic petition to the federal government to seek clemency for five elderly, nonviolent Cannabis-only offenders serving life without parole. The five men are John Knock, Paul Free, William Dekle, Larry Duke, and Charles Cundiff. All five elderly men have served at least 15 years in prison for their marijuana dealings. The petition argues they have been model prisoners, and do not pose a threat to themselves, others or society, and so should be released. Because these men have no chance at parole, clemency from the U.S. President is their only hope of release. The non profit organization founded by volunteer Beth Curtis called Life For Pot helped to back this federal petition to free the five men. Life For Pot has tracked at least twenty prisoners serving life sentences for Cannabis-only related crimes. On March 5th, 2015, Larry Duke was granted an immediate release after serving 26 years in prison. No releases have been granted to the other prisoners as of yet. 

If you’re interested in knowing where elected officials stand on Cannabis legalization, the Cannabis Voter Project at www.cannabisvoter.info provides easy access to find out more information and take action. At www.headcount.org you can find out registration and election deadlines, what states will have marijuana legalization on the 2020 ballot, as well as register to vote.