Michael Thompson is a 68-year-old inmate at Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan. His crime? In 1994, he sold 3 pounds of cannabis to a police informant. In a recent article published by The Intercept, investigators took a look into why Thompson is still stuck behind bars. Thompson, caught in the era of the war on drugs at the time of his conviction, was sentenced to 40-60 years in prison. The Intercept reports that, despite the fact that his warden describes him as respectful and well-behaved, and recreational cannabis is now legal in Michigan, Thompson is still serving out his sentence. To date, he has served 25 years. Unfortunately, Thompson’s story is only one of many who were caught with cannabis during the war on drugs. In 2010, 52% of police drug busts were for marijuana. Most of these arrests were made for simply having cannabis.
Luckily, the recent trend towards decriminalization in America is changing cannabis legality. The US currently has 10 states in which recreational cannabis is legal, and in other states, increasing decriminalization has made cannabis possession punishable by fines alone. In fact, this summer the state of California ruled that state inmates are allowed to have small possessions of marijuana, too.
However, despite public attitudes generally turning in favor of cannabis, law enforcement has cracked down more on marijuana arrests. Arrests have been on the incline since 2017, and almost 92% of those are for possession alone. This means that regular people who choose to smoke pot may still face arrest. So while medical marijuana may be legal in New Jersey, possessing any amount of recreational marijuana is punishable with up to six months in jail. In other states where marijuana is illegal entirely, like Idaho, possession of any marijuana is a misdemeanor. Even in states where recreational cannabis is legal, many states have specific stipulations about how much recreational cannabis one can possess or where it can be smoked – Colorado, where recreational cannabis is legal, only allows for possession of up to 1 ounce.
But this brings us back to Thompson’s story — what about convicts like him who are stuck behind bars? Thompson himself is sentenced to at least 15 more years in prison, as he was arrested during the height of drug prohibition. Are convicts like him simply victims of a passing age, unable to reap benefits from today’s laws? And what about us? Should cannabis users – regular people like you and me – be at all concerned about the rising marijuana arrest rates?
Those convicted before the push for marijuana reform will likely be stuck with their sentences. But there is hope on the horizon – recently, California announced that its government will work with convicts to expunge cannabis incarcerations from convicts’ records under Proposition 64. Likewise, the state of Illinois also plans to help those whose lives have been turned inside-out from marijuana convictions using the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which will automatically concede clemency to anyone convicted of a marijuana possession of under 30 grams. New York is also jumping on the bandwagon by expunging the records of about 160,000 people convicted of marijuana possession. In these states, at the very least, the government seems to be taking action to defend marijuana users who have been serving time.
The growing pattern of expunging records is a trend that brings hope – specifically for the black community. According to the NAACP, black Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of white people. When it comes to marijuana and drug arrests specifically, black people are arrested at a rate six times higher than that of whites. While expungement does not address much deeper structural issues that American policing systems clearly need to face, the effacing of such crimes does offer hope that some black prisoners arrested for marijuana use will be able to return to their lives with a clean record.
Theoretically, it is also possible for Thompson to be pardoned from prison, as was first-time nonviolent drug offender Alice Marie Johnson last year. President Trump pardoned Johnson and she was released on parole, despite her conviction in the 90’s because of her involvement in cocaine trafficking. However, it is important to consider the circumstances under which Johnson was pardoned – her case first rose to national prominence with the involvement of Kim Kardashian, who discovered Johnson’s case and advocated for her release. With such celebrity pressure and national media attention turned to the case, President Trump agreed to a pardon. It’s unreasonable to expect, though, that every felon unfairly convicted will be able to find a celebrity to advocate for their rights.
So, what else can be done to help those still behind bars? Some convicts urge entrepreneurs in the legal marijuana industry to use their status to advocate for convicts. The CAN-DO Foundation for Clemency is fighting for Thompson’s case along with hundreds of others with his same story, although progress is slow and uncertain. NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, among others like The Marijuana Policy Project, is working to advocate for non-punitive marijuana user policies, too.
As for anyone concerned about the current arrest rates, the good news is that annual marijuana arrest rates have only increased by about 4,000 nationwide since 2017. While it is impossible to tell what lies ahead, the additions of Proposition 64, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, and New York’s expungement initiative are promising. The most important step you can take is to know the laws of your particular state, as a precautionary measure.
Sources for this article include The Intercept, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Washington Post, Forbes, CNN, The New York Times, and USA Today.