Protesters gather in front of the White House to demand the release of all people incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses on Oct. 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. President Biden made an announcement that he wanted to release those incarcerated and decriminalize marijuana, but no prisoners as of now have been released.
Michael Robinson Chavez—The Washington Post/ Getty Images
Ideas
December 1, 2022 8:00 AM EST
Thompson, 71, is a Flint, Michigan Native and criminal justice reform activist. He served a 25 year life sentence for cannabis offenses and was released in January 2021. Today, he works alongside nonprofits, Last Prisoner Project and The Michael Thompson Clemency project to help prison reform.

Today, I am thinking about Kevin Allen who is currently serving life in prison for selling $20 worth of marijuana in Louisiana. Marijuana is now legal for medical use in Louisiana. So, why is Kevin Allen still in jail?

Today, I am thinking about Rudi Gammo who is serving five and a half years for operating a Detroit-sanctioned medical dispensary. The father of three is currently incarcerated while marijuana sale in Michigan has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Today, I am thinking about thousands of people who are arrested for marijuana in this country every year. Today, I am thinking about myself. I spent 25 years in prison for selling three pounds of marijuana. I was not supposed to get out of prison until 2038. I would have spent six decades behind bars; six decades lost with my family.

I had a lot of help and support from many people—an entire community and movement helped me get out. But I left a lot of people behind in prison. I can still hear their voices. They do not have the support that I had.

Even now 25 years later, the main question on my mind is: who has marijuana really harmed? From where I’m standing, it seems to have overwhelmingly harmed people who look like me and come from backgrounds like mine.

On Oct. 6, 2022, President Biden announced a marijuana pardon for people convicted of federal marijuana possession. However, since no one in federal prison is serving sentences for only marijuana possession, zero people will actually be freed. Just the same, this pardon will not do anything for the thousands in city jails, county jails, or state penitentiaries. Those incarcerated on these local levels are not benefiting from this pardon.

Read More: Marijuana Will Be Legal in Half the U.S. If These Ballot Measures Pass in the 2022 Midterms

This pardon was a grand claim, but as you look closer, you realize the reality I have known for a while: The system is rigged.

Even now, I am angry because, after spending 25 years in prison, I was placed on parole for four years. There is no humanity or true consideration for a person’s life when this parole choice was made. It is a shame that the criminal justice system can pick and choose what offense and amount of time someone gets in prison because of financial ability or the color of their skin. In fact, from 1992 to 2021, a majority (nearly 55%) of citizens and legal residents convicted of at least one count of federal marijuana possession were Black or Hispanic, according to a recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The president’s reform is a step in the right direction, but until we tell it like it is and say our criminal justice system is broken, we are just playing games, playing politics, and doing nothing but putting a band-aid on a bleeding wound.

President Biden was careful that this pardon was only extended to those in possession of marijuana. What about those sitting in prison for selling marijuana? It doesn’t make any sense that states all over this country are making millions selling marijuana and those same states—like Michigan—have people serving time for doing the same thing. This isn’t new—I’m just trying to understand why when two people do the same thing, one is a criminal and the other is a businessman.

I believe everyone serving time for any marijuana charge deserves to be set free and without a count on their record. I also believe we still need to do more.

The day I found out marijuana was legal and being sold for a profit, I was wondering why I was still in prison. Why did I not only have to still serve my sentence, but also have to continue to fight to receive clemency? I know many people who are still serving time for marijuana charges are asking themselves the same question—that even after marijuana was made legal, they have been left in prison.

Prison is hell on earth. The conditions in most prisons make you feel less than human, make you feel like a dog! You become a number, a punching bag, a statement for a slick politician. You are at mercy of a broken system.

So, what do we need to do? It is bigger than just a marijuana pardon; it is prison reform. It is fixing the broken system that is used to lock up people of color, and destroy their families and communities. It is changing how people who are locked up are treated and giving them access to healthcare and decent food. It is rehabilitation programs, so when they get out of prison, they are set up to succeed and not get trapped by the system that is looking for any reason to lock them up again.

The day I was charged, I thought I was going to be in prison for 45 days. Since it was a simple marijuana charge, I was told by friends and my attorney that it didn’t warrant a serious sentence. I wish I knew then what I know now—the system was not designed to work. Or, at least, not designed to work for a man who looks like me.

A three-pound marijuana sale is why I was standing in front of a judge that day, but it was a tactic like stacking charges that led to a 60-year sentence, or a trap sentencing. When prosecutors “stack” charges, defendants can be sentenced as repeat offenders even if they have no prior convictions. This can lead to a trap sentence—a conviction that does not fit the original crime they were being charged for. Instead, they are now being charged for various additional offenses that may have nothing to do with what they were detained for in the first place.

What President Biden is doing is good, but it is not all that needs to be done. It is one step forward in a long climb toward prison reform. The work I’m doing with organizations like The Last Prisoner Project and the Michael Thompson Clemency Project is making sure that no one is left behind in prison, whether it be for marijuana or because they received a cruel sentence that did not match their crime.

So, today, I am thinking about my former inmates and friends LeRoy Washington and Horace Peterson, who deserve their country to give them a second chance. A fair chance, this time.

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