President Obama: Yes He Can Commute Draconian Drug War Sentences!


Presidential candidate Barack Obama was a skilled orator that could bring grown men to tears. His hope and change speeches and “Yes We Can” rhetoric inspired millions who thought that we would be electing a progressive president who would tackle the serious issues of the day. In retrospect, it appeared that Obama was really a blank canvas that progressives could project their own sensibilities upon. If you were concerned about climate change, he would take on the polluters. If you were concerned about the United States waging unnecessary wars, then you just knew that President Obama would only wage war if absolutely necessary and with a clear exit plan. If ending the Drug War was your thing, well surely an African-American member of the Choom Gang would understand the unjust, harmful and racist implication of the War on Drugs and start dismantling the prison-industrial-complex that many refer to as “The New Jim Crow“.

I think that it is safe to say that most progressives have had their ups and downs with President Obama during his tenure. For marijuana law reform advocates, the president immediately went against his word as his Justice Department raided, arrested and prosecuted people cultivating and providing medical cannabis. President Obama even made jokes about the cannabis community and didn’t seem to take the issue seriously. But slowly but surely, the former Choom Gang member has started to come around. His first big step was not immediately squashing the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington. The federal Cole Memo, while not perfect provided a decent guideline for states and Native American reservations to follow. President Obama then removed one of the unnecessary barriers to medical cannabis research. And finally, President Obama has commuted Drug War prisoners’ sentences and has named criminal justice reforms one of the major principles of his remaining years in office.

The AP reports in the Boston Herald:

Calling America “a nation of second chances,” President Barack Obama cut the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders on Monday in what the White House hopes will be just one prong of a broader push to make the criminal justice system fairer while saving the government money.

Fourteen of those whose sentences were commuted had been sentenced to life in prison and the vast majority to at least 20 years, the president said in a video released by the White House, adding that “their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”

“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” he said, promising to lay out more ideas on criminal justice changes during a speech to the NAACP on Tuesday in Philadelphia.

Not only is President Obama commuting unjust, draconian Drug War sentences, but his administration is dedicating itself to working towards more criminal justice reforms during the remainder of the the term. These reforms are clearly needed as Families Against Mandatory Minimums states, the federal prison population has exploded from just 24,000 in the 1980s to more than 214,000 today. The expansion of the prison-industrial-complex has grown too much and has caused too much damage, especially to folks battling poverty and people of color, to be ignored any longer. As The Wall Street Journal notes, President Obama is working across the political spectrum to try and reform our broken criminal justice system:

“Right now with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we’re at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter, make it work better,” Mr. Obama said. “And I’m determined to do my part wherever I can.”

The push for a criminal-justice overhaul has been led by advocates from both ends of the political spectrum, including the left-leaning Center for American Progress and conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch.

Mr. Obama plans to press for a broader legislative solution that would address some of the inequities in the justice system. But administration officials also have signaled that he may continue to act on his own.

Political gridlock across most issues is the status quo. One of the few issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree upon is criminal justice reform. From allowing states to implement their own marijuana laws, to banking, to IRS 280e reform, to Drug War sentencing, we are seeing the left and the right, and everyone inbetween realize that the War on Drugs has been an abysmal failure. It is a shame that our country has had to ruin so many lives and waste so many resources before this bipartisan consensus could be reached, but it is promising that we are finally making progress. While these commutations and further potential reforms by the POTUS won’t solve all of our Drug War problems, they are a great step forward and get us closer to ending a failed and harmful war that we have been waging upon our own citizens for far too long. #ThanksObama

Anthony Johnson

Anthony, a longtime cannabis law reform advocate, was Chief Petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, Oregon's cannabis legalization effort. He served as director of both the New Approach Oregon and Vote Yes on 91 PACs, the political action committees responsible for the state's legalization campaign. As director of New Approach Oregon, Anthony continues to work towards effectively implementing the cannabis legalization system while protecting small business owners and the rights of patients. He sits on the Oregon Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee and fights for sensible rules at the legislature as well as city councils and county commissions across the state. Anthony helps cannabis business comply with Oregon's laws and advises advocates across the country. He also serves as content director of both the International Cannabis Business Conference and the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference, helping share the vision of moving the cannabis industry forward in a way that maintains the focus on keeping people out of prison and protecting patients. He was a member of the Oregon Health Authority Rules Advisory Committee, assisting the drafting of the administrative rules governing Oregon’s state-licensed medical marijuana facilities. He first co-authored and helped pass successful marijuana law reform measures while a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. He passed the Oregon Bar in 2005 and practiced criminal defense for two years before transitioning to working full-time in the political advocacy realm. His blogs on Marijuana Politics are personal in nature and don't speak for or reflect the opinions of any group or organization.