Criminal Defense Attys Push Biden For Cannabis Clemency

By Sam Reisman | May 3, 2024, 8:42 PM EDT ·

On the heels of the U.S. Department of Justice's announcement that it would recommend relaxing federal restrictions on marijuana, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has urged President Joe Biden to grant clemency and compassionate release to those with federal nonviolent marijuana convictions.

The criminal defense attorneys' letter comes as numerous cannabis advocates and criminal justice reformers have noted that moving marijuana from the highly restrictive Schedule I tier under the Controlled Substances Act to the more loosely regulated Schedule III would not actually legalize cannabis or provide relief to Americans with marijuana convictions.

"The continued prosecution of marijuana crimes continues to cause irreparable harm on real people and their families," resource counsel Elizabeth Budnitz and executive director Lisa M. Wayne wrote in their letter Tuesday to the White House counsel.

"Men and women languish in federal prisons across this country for conduct today that has been legalized in many states and under statues that have been rewritten to reflect the evolving landscape in the field of marijuana," the letter continued.

The letter spotlights four people convicted of nonviolent federal marijuana crimes, some of whom had prison sentencing enhancements levied upon them that would not apply today, the attorneys said.

Describing one prisoner, Kerry Lynn Collier, 53, who has served 11 years of a 20-year sentence for a nonviolent marijuana crime, the lawyers wrote: "He was sentenced to an extra decade in prison based on a sentencing enhancement that would not apply to him today, because his simple possession conviction no longer qualifies as a predicate offense."

In addition to requesting that federal agencies review marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, President Biden issued presidential pardons, in December 2023 and October 2022, for federal simple marijuana possession crimes and encouraged state governors to follow suit.

"Even as we move forward in redressing some of the failed policies and disparate impacts of the war on drugs, the continued prosecution of marijuana crimes is causing irreparable harm to real people and their families," Budnitz said in a statement Friday. "Men and women languish in federal prisons for conduct that is legal in many states today."

Biden's cannabis pardons only affected individuals whose offenses took place in the District of Columbia and other areas under the jurisdiction of federal law. However, the vast majority of arrests and convictions for simple possession and use of marijuana have taken place at the local and state level.

The pardons had no effect on those convicted of more serious marijuana offenses, such as possession with intent to sell or driving under the influence of marijuana.

"The partial measure of reclassification — in contrast with the ultimate solution of decriminalization — would have only a limited impact on criminal justice cases involving marijuana," Wayne said in the statement.

"While President Biden has granted pardons for federal marijuana possession cases, many more individuals languish in federal prisons with petitions pending for commutations of their sentences," Wayne continued. The association "urges the White House counsel to consider these cases and the broader issues of decriminalization of cannabis and clemency or other retroactive relief for marijuana offenses."

The DOJ on Tuesday said that it agreed with federal health officials in determining that marijuana most appropriately belongs in Schedule III instead of Schedule I, the tier reserved for drugs with no medical use and a high likelihood of abuse.

The announcement came nine months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded its review of marijuana and found that the drug had a currently accepted medical use in the U.S. and was less dangerous than the other drugs in Schedule I, such as heroin, or alcohol, which is not scheduled.

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

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