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Clemency and Pardon

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As Clock Ticks Down, Pressure Mounts on Obama to Free More Drug War Prisoners

President Obama has commuted the sentences of more than a thousand federal drug war prisoners, but thousands more have applications in the pipeline. With an incoming Trump administration exceedingly unlikely to act on those petitions, scholars, activists, and at least one US congressman are calling on Obama to expedite clemency efforts while he still can.

Obama still has work to do on sentence commutations. (whitehouse.gov)
In a Tuesday letter, more than 50 scholars and advocates, including Van Jones and performer John Legend, as well as representatives from the NAACP and the Southern Center for Human Rights, not only called on Obama to ramp up the pace of commutations, but also to consider granting clemency to entire categories of drug war prisoners without case-by-case review.

In a 2014 Justice Department move, the Obama administration called on prisoners still doing time for offenses whose sentences were reduced under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act to seek sentence cuts and set out criteria spelling out who was eligible. While thousands have applied, a strict vetting process and problems in the Office of the Pardons Attorney means that thousands of clemency requests have yet to be acted on.

Time is too tight to just continue as before, the advocates said, especially given the "law and order" proclivities of the next administration.

"While your administration continues to review individual petitions, we urge you to also determine that nonviolent offenders in certain extremely low-risk categories either deserve expedited review or should be granted clemency absent an individualized review," the group wrote.

"We do not know whether the next president will support clemency efforts or criminal justice reform," the letter concluded. "But we do know that until January 20, you alone have the power to deliver both mercy and justice to those who deserve it."

The group suggested that instead of a time-consuming individualized assessment of inmates' prison behavior, the administration use "prison placement (to a minimum security camp or a low- or medium-security facility) as a surrogate for how an individual has behaved in prison" in order to speed up the process. Another suggestion was to grant clemency to those labeled "career offenders" based solely on drug convictions. And the group suggested that Obama need not "commute entire sentences," but could instead provide partial "tiered relief" to reduce some sentences.

The scholars and advocates weren't the only ones putting Obama on notice that the clock is ticking. US Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice also sent the president a Tuesday letter urging expedited action on commutations.

"I would urge you to summon the maximum manpower at your disposal to vet commutations and pardons so that as many sentencing wrongs as possible may be corrected as thousands of incarcerated Americans who are serving unjust sentences may receive justice," wrote Cohen.

While much of the attention has been focused on people sentenced to decades in prison over small amounts of crack cocaine -- an injustice only partially redressed in the Fair Sentencing Act -- Cohen also recently urged Obama not to forget marijuana prisoners.

"President Obama should be commuting the prison sentences of those serving time for nonviolent marijuana-related convictions," said Cohen. "Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states as well as the District of Columbia, and more than 63 million Americans live in states that have now approved recreational marijuana. The President should increase clemency review staff and work overtime to free as many of these individuals as possible before he leaves office. Every day that someone continues to serve an unjust sentence is a day justice is denied. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so rightly noted, 'Justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

The clock is ticking.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: Calls for Obama to Cut More Sentences, Iran Drug Death Penalty Moves, More... (11/29/16)

Scholars, advocates, and a US congressman are calling on Obama to ramp up the commutation process in the final weeks of his term, the CDC issues a report calling for expanded syringe exchange, Maryland moves to address racial diversity (or the lack thereof) in the medical marijuana business, and more.

There are new calls for Obama to ramp up the commutation process as the clock ticks down on his term. (nadcp.org)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Marijuana Victory Faces Certification Delay. Secretary of State William Galvin said Monday that the November 8 election results may not be certified in time for marijuana legalization to go into effect on December 15, that date it is supposed to become legal. Ballot initiatives in the state do not become law until they are officially certified, and a December 14 meeting is the earliest date voting tallies on the initiative are likely to presented, Galvin said. But if not by December 15, certainly by early next year, he added: "All those tokers can hold their breath a little longer, but they'll be able to exhale" by early 2017, Galvin quipped.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Moving to Improve Diversity in Medical Marijuana Industry. The state Cannabis Commission announced Monday that it is hiring a consultant to advise it on steps it can take to improve racial diversity in the nascent industry. The consultant will decide whether a study can be conducted to determine whether minorities have been unfairly excluded. If such a finding is made, that would allow the state to consider race when awarding medical marijuana licenses.

Harm Reduction

Groundbreaking Report from CDC Calls for Expansion of Syringe Access Programs. In a report on HIV and injection drug use released Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls strongly for expanding needle exchange programs. "Syringe services programs (SSPs) can play a role in preventing HIV and other health problems among people who inject drugs (PWID)," the report found. "They provide access to sterile syringes and should also provide comprehensive services such as help with stopping substance misuse; testing and linkage to treatment for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C; education on what to do for an overdose; and other prevention services. State and local health departments can work with their lawmakers and law enforcement to make SSPs more available to PWID."

Sentencing

Calls Mount For Obama to Ramp Up Commutations as Term Nears End. A coalition of scholars and activists as well as a US congressman are calling on President Obama to expand clemency efforts in the final weeks of his administration -- including considering granting clemency to entire groups of people without case-by-case review. Obama has commuted the sentences of more than a thousand people sentenced under draconian drug war sentencing laws, but thousands more have applied for commutations without those applications yet being acted on.

International

Iran Keeps Moving Toward Ending the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Iranian parliament last week agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drug offenses in the Islamic Republic. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading before the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors." Iran is one of the world's leading drug executioners, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the more than a thousand people it executed last year.

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations, FL Face-Biting Killer Wasn't on Synthetics, More... (11/23/16)

The president continues to exercise his commutation power on behalf of drug war prisoners, the Florida face-biting killer was not on any new psychoactive substances, Montana activists want their medical marijuana program to restart now, not later, and more.

Obama meets with prisoners at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal detention facility. (whitehouse.gov)
Medical Marijuana

Montana Activists File Suit to Force Early Action on Patient Cards. In the wake of last week's vote to reinstate the state's medical marijuana program, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Department of Health and Human Services to immediately begin processing and issuing medical marijuana cards. The language of the ballot measure means the state has until next summer to act, but the MCIA doesn't want to dally.

New Psychoactive Substances

Florida Face-Biting Killer Wasn't on Bath Salts, Flakka. Austin Harrouff, the Florida man charged in the face-biting slaying of a neighbor couple was not under the influence of new psychoactive substances, an autopsy report released Wednesday revealed. Early press and law enforcement commentary had suggested Harrouff was high on bath salts (methcathinone) or flakka (alpha-PVP), but the autopsy revealed only prescription medications and a "minimal" amount of THC in his system. "Austin is struggling with severe mental illness and the judicial process will bear all of this out in due time," his attorney, Nellie King said.

Sentencing

Obama Announces More Commutations, Total Now Over a Thousand. President Obama Wednesday announced that he was commuting the sentences of 79 more drug offenders sentenced under draconian drug laws dating back to the 1980s. That brings the total of commutations under Obama to more than one thousand, which is more than the list 11 presidents combined. Thousands more commutations requests filed in response to an Obama administration call in 2014 remain pending as the clock ticks down on Obama's time in office.

International

Cayman Islands Legalizes CBD Cannabis Oil. Gov. Helen Kilpatrick last week signed into law legislation allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil in the island nation. The oil can be used for the treatment of conditions including epilepsy and cancer and as a pain reliever for arthritis symptoms. The law does not allow for marijuana to be grown in the country, but the legislature last month passed a separate law allowing for the importation of CBD cannabis oil.

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Sentences, Filipinos Like Duterte's Drug War, More... (10/7/16)

The president continues granting clemency to federal drug war prisoners, Iran executes more drug prisoners, Filipinos approve of their president's dirty, deadly drug war, and more.

Thanks, Obama! (whitehouse.gov)
Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Minors Can Now Qualify for Medical Marijuana. Under changes in the state's medical marijuana system that went into effect this week, minors with certain specified conditions can now enroll in the program. Those conditions include cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, irreversible spinal cord injury with intractable spasticity, severe epilepsy, intractable seizure disorders, and terminal illness.

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Civil Asset Forfeiture Law Challenged in New Lawsuit. The Institute of Justice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an elderly Washington state couple who loaned their car to their adult son so he could drive to Florida, but had their vehicle seized after the son was arrested in Arizona with a "personal use quantity" of marijuana. The state's asset forfeiture laws are unconstitutional, the lawsuit alleges. This case was filed against the sheriff of Navaho County. The ACLU of Arizona is pursuing a similar case in Pimal County.

Pardons and Commutations

Obama Commutes Sentences of 102 More Drug War Prisoners. President Obama Friday granted clemency to another 102 imprisoned federal drug offenders, bring the total so far to 774. Obama has now freed more prisoners that the previous 11 presidents combined, but advocates want him to do more. "The President is doing the right thing, but we hope to see many more commutations," said Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "We also need Congress to remain engaged on this issue." Congress has pending sentencing reform bills before it.

International

Iran Hangs Seven More for Drug Offenses. Even as the parliament considers ending the death penalty for drug offenses, executions continue apace. Seven prisoners were hanged in late September for drug offenses at Minab's Central Prison. Last year, drug offenders accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 970 people executed in the Islamic Republic.

Filipinos Overwhelmingly Approve of Duterte's Deadly Drug War. A national opinion poll finds that 84% of Filipinos surveyed said they were satisfied or moderately satisfied with the president's harsh anti-drug campaign, which has left more than a thousand people killed by police and twice that number killed by vigilantes. Some 94%, though, said suspects should be brought to trial alive, but despite Duterte's call for killing them, most respondents still rated his efforts as "excellent."

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Boston's First MedMJ Shop Opens, More... (8/3/16)

Obama commutes more drug sentences, Boston gets its first dispensary, more signs of how horrid South Dakota is on marijuana, Utah SWAT deployment data, and more.

Utah SWAT is aimed mostly at drug offenders. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon US Attorney Prosecuting Black Teen Over One Gram of Weed. In the first federal marijuana possession prosecution in the state in five years, teenager Devontre Thomas has been charged over a gram of pot found in another student's backpack at the federal Indian School they both attended. The other teen claimed he got the weed from Thomas, and that's enough for US Attorney Billy J. Williams to charge Thomas with "knowingly and intentionally possessing marijuana." Williams is getting blowback from many, including US Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who said "situations like this are best handled by the state."

South Dakota to Prosecute Consultants for Aborted Indian Tribe Pot Grow. Attorney General Marty Jackley announced Wednesday that two men who consulted with the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in its effort to grow marijuana have been indicted on a range of marijuana possession charges. The tribe began to grow after the federal government signaled that tribes could do so, but destroyed its crop after federal officials raided other tribes than had entered the business and after state officials threatened to arrest non-Indians who used marijuana there. One of the consultants was hit with felony possession and is looking at up to 7 ½ years in prison, while the other, who cooperated with authorities, only got a misdemeanor charge.

Medical Marijuana

Boston Gets Its First Dispensary. The Patriot Cares dispensary is open on Boston's Milk Street as of today. The company says it's ready for 150 patients a day and that 200 patients have already registered.

South Dakota Medical Marijuana Initiative Supporters Sue Over Signatures. The secretary of state's office said petitions from the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion came up short on signatures, blocking the measure from going to the voters, and now, the coalition has filed a complaint alleging that signatures were not properly counted. The coalition is seeking to have the secretary of state's decision thrown out and that a local judge will order the initiative placed on the November ballot.

Law Enforcement

Utah SWAT Used Overwhelmingly for Drug Crimes. Utah is the only state to currently require reporting on SWAT deployments, and the 2015 report has just been released. SWAT was deployed 457 times in 2015, including 281 forced entries into private residences. Three-quarters of those forced entries were drug raids. The data also showed that police were more likely to use "no-knock" search warrants against drug suspects than against violent crime suspects. Go figure.

Pardons and Clemency

Obama Frees More Federal Drug Prisoners, But Time is Running Out. Some 214 federal drug war prisoners saw their prison sentences commuted Wednesday as President Obama took another step toward fulfilling his administration's pledge to use his pardon power to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for non-violent drug crimes.Those whose sentences were commuted Wednesday will walk out of prison on December 1. With Wednesday's commutations, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That's more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

Obama Frees More Federal Drug War Prisoners, But Time is Running Out

Some 214 federal drug war prisoners saw their prison sentences commuted Wednesday as President Obama took another step toward fulfilling his administration's pledge to use his pardon power to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for nonviolent drug crimes.

"The power to grant pardons and commutations… embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws," the president said.

Those whose sentences were commuted Wednesday will walk out of prison on December 1.

With Wednesday's commutations, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That's more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

But it's not close to the number whose sentences Obama could commute under a program announced in 2014 by then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole. They called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted at the time that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 562 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for nearly 9,000 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

That would undercut Obama's legacy of redressing drug war injustice. There are now only six months to go in his presidency, and nearly 18,000 prisoners who were told to seek clemency are now waiting for a response.

Here is President Obama addressing the commutation issue during an earlier series of sentence cuts:

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Majority for Legalization in New Poll, More... (6/6/16)

President Obama keeps chipping away at the federal drug prisoner population, Weldon Angelos finally goes free, yet another poll has a national majority for marijuana legalization, the new Filipino president encourages vigilante violence against drug dealers, and more.

President Obama has commuted another 42 drug sentences, including 20 lifers. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Another National Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization, Near Unanimous Support for Medical Marijuana. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday has support for marijuana legalization at 54%, with 41% opposed. That's in line with a bevy of polls in the past couple of years showing majority support for legalization. The new Quinnipiac poll also had support for medical marijuana at 89%, with only 9% opposed, and 87% support for allowed Veterans Administration doctors to recommend it to vets with PTSD.

Anti-Legalization Forces Seek Backing of Rightist Casino Billionaire. The anti-reform group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, led by Kevin Sabet, is seeking funding from Nevada casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who contributed millions of dollars to defeat a medical marijuana initiative in Florida in 2014. Adelson is also a major funder of Republican presidential candidates, having spent $15 million supporting Newt Gingrich in 2012.

Massachusetts Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Legalization Initiative. The high court is set to hear two challenges Wednesday to the legalization initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. One challenge alleges that organizers have misled voters about its ramifications and claims it would allow for the sale of GMO marijuana, while the other challenge says the words "marijuana legalization" in the initiative's title are misleading because it doesn't legalize it for people under 21.

Medical Marijuana

Montana Initiative Coming Up on Signature Deadline. Backers of Initiative 182, which seeks to restore the state's medical marijuana program demolished by the legislature in 2011, say they have some 30,000 raw signatures as a June 17 deadline draws near. They need 24,000 valid signatures to qualify. Initiative watchers generally assume as many as 30% of gathered signatures could be invalidated. If that were the case right now in Montana, the initiative would not make the ballot.

Drug Testing

Michigan Supreme Court to Hear Case of Mother Jailed for Refusing Drug Test in Son's Juvenile Case. The state's high court will hear the case of Kelly Michelle Dorsey, who was jailed for contempt of court in 2012 for refusing to take a drug test in a case involving her minor son, because the son was under the court's jurisdiction, not Dorsey. An appeals court held that forcing mothers to submit to drug tests in such cases was unconstitutional, but upheld a finding a contempt of court for her refusal. Now, the state Supreme Court is set to weigh in.

Sentencing

Obama Commutes Sentences for 42 More Drug Offenders, Including 20 Lifers. President Obama last Friday added another 42 names to the ever growing list of federal drug prisoners whose sentences he has commuted. That brings to 348 the number of commutations Obama has handed out, more than the last seven presidents combined. For a list of names of the newly commuted, go here.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Poster Child Weldon Angelos Freed After 12 Years. The Salt Lake City rap and hip hop label owner and small-time pot dealer was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison because he carried a pistol strapped to his ankle during marijuana deals. Now he is a free man after prosecutors moved to cut his sentence.

New Hampshire GOP Senator Wants to Jack Up Mandatory Minimums for Fentanyl. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is planning to offer an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act this week that would vastly increase mandatory minimums for fentanyl. Currently, it takes 100 grams of a mixture containing fentanyl to garner a five-year mandatory minimum; under Ayotte's proposal, it would only take half a gram. The Drug Policy Alliance and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are among those opposing the move.

International

Israeli Security Minister Opposes Marijuana Decriminalization. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Sunday he opposes such a move because it could increase traffic accidents and police have no way of preventing drugged drivers from getting behind the wheel. He also said that policies were already lax and the decriminalization would amount to legalization. Opposition from Erdan and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has delayed a vote on a decriminalization bill that was supposed to take place Sunday.

Philippines President Encourages People to Kill Drug Dealers. President Rodrigo Duterte used a televised speech Saturday night to encourage citizens to shoot and kill drug dealers who resist arrest. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun -- you have my support," adding, "Shoot him and I'll give you a medal." He also threatened to kill drug addicts. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City, was reputed to have been involved with death squad killings. Apparently some Filipino voters wanted to hear that or didn't mind, since they just elected him president.

Obama's Effort to Free Drug War Prisoners Hits Bureaucratic Roadblocks [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

With the sentence commutations announced last week, President Barack Obama has now cut more than 300 harsh drug war prison sentences, more than the previous six presidents combined. Thousands more could be eligible for commutations, but bureaucratic obstacles inside the Justice Department mean the clock could run out before Obama gets a chance to free them.

Thousands could go free with sentence cuts this year -- if bottlenecks are fixed. (nacdp.org)
As part of the Obama administration's emphasis on criminal justice reform and reducing the federal prison population, then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder at the time. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

The mass clemency program is one of Eric Holder's sentencing reform legacies. (justice.gov)
Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 306 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for 9,115 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

The situation so infuriated Office of Pardons attorney Deborah Leff, who was hired to oversee the project, that she quit earlier this year. Her resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates made it clear why.

Despite her "intense efforts" to do her job, Justice had "not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary ffor my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president," she wrote. "The position in which my office has been placed, asking us to address the petitions of nearly 10,000 individuals with so few attorneys and support staff, means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

It wasn't just that Justice wasn't adequately staffing the pardons office -- it had a total of 10 staff attorneys -- but Yates was overturning the pardon attorneys' recommendations and blocking the office's traditional access to the White House, Leff complained.

"I have been deeply troubled by the decision to deny the Pardon Attorney all access to the Office of the White House Counsel, even to share the reasons for our determinations in the increasing number of cases where you have reversed our recommendations," Leff wrote in her resignation letter to Yates.

US Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in frustration.
"It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand," she wrote, implying that the Justice Department process was stalling justice.

The staffing problems had been apparent early on, which is why the Department turned to the Clemency Project to help out last year. But that effort, which involved some 4,000 attorneys from 30 law schools, 70 large law firms, and more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners doing pro bono work, has also been slow to get rolling.

Now, with the days slipping away and freedom for thousands in the balance, both the Justice Department and the Clemency Project are feeling the heat. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston told the Washington Post last week that many more petitions will be granted in Obama's final months and that the Justice Department has doubled the number of lawyers at the pardon office. And administration officials said that President Obama wants to see more petitions on his desk.

"The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he's granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations," White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement.

The Justice Department said it was working hard, too.

"The Justice Department has dedicated the maximum amount of resources allowed by Congress to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and we have requested additional funds from Congress for each year the initiative has been in place," spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement.

But it may be too little, too late for the thousands of men and women behind bars who could see freedom being waved in front of them only to vanish when the clock runs out, if things don't change quickly.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations, SC Town Pays Big for Killing Teen in Pot Bust, More... (3/30/16)

The president has commuted sentences for another 61 federal drug offenders, Maine legalizers are fighting to get their signatures validated and their initiative on the ballot, a South Carolina town pays out big for the death of a local teen in a small-time pot bust, and more.

Zach Hammond's family has settled a lawsuit over his death in a small-time pot sting operation gone bad. (Hammond family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Senate Approves Marijuana DUID Bill. The Senate voted 19-14 Wednesday to pass LD 1628, which establishes a blood level for THC over which the driver is presumed to be impaired. The bill sets the limit at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, the same as the states of Colorado and Washington. The bill now goes to the House.

Maine Legalization Campaign Gets Hearing On Invalidated Signatures. At a court hearing Wednesday, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol fought to get more than 17,000 invalidated signatures reinstated. The campaign accused Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of using an "unconstitutionally vague" interpretation of election laws to invalidate the signatures -- all of which were notarized by the same person. Dunlap said the notary's signature didn't match his on-file signature. By invalidating the 17,000 signatures, Dunlap ensured that the initiative campaign would not qualify for the November ballot. The court has until April 11 to render a decision.

Oregon Governor Signs Marijuana Edibles Bill. Gov. Kate Brown Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 1511, which allows people 21 and over to purchase edibles and extracts at dispensaries. The bill also allows recreational pot stores to sell medical marijuana tax-free to registered patients.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Patients Protest Proposed Medical Marijuana Tax. Protestors gathered at the State House Tuesday to just say no to Gov. Gina Raimondo's (D) plan to impose a tax on patient and caregiver growers. "We have pain, we have cancer, taxing us is not the answer," they chanted. Under her plan, caregivers would have to pay $350 per plant and patients who grow their own would have to pay $150. The protest took place just before the House Finance Committee took up the proposal.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Full Transcript of President Obama's Atlanta Remarks on Heroin and Pain Pills. The White House has released the full transcript of the discussion panel in which President Obama took part Tuesday as part of the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. Click the title link for the transcripts.

Law Enforcement

Family of Zach Hammond Settles Police Killing Lawsuit. The South Carolina teenager was shot and killed by police last summer as he sat in his pick-up truck. The teenage girl who was his passenger was the target of an attempted bust over the sale of a bag of weed, and police shot Hammond as he attempted to pull away from the scene. His family has settled the lawsuit for $2.1 million. State investigators last year concluded that the killing was justified, but the city has just paid up.

Sentencing

Obama Pardons More Drug Offenders. President Obama today granted clemency to 61 more federal drug offenders, more than a third of whom were serving life sentences. That brings to 248 the number of sentences commuted by Obama, more than the six previous presidents combined. He was also set to meet today with people whose sentences had been commuted by previous presidents to discuss their experiences with reentry and how the process can be strengthened. On Thursday, he will hold a Life After Clemency briefing at 2:00pm EDT, which can be viewed live at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

Bill Maher-Inspired Protest Will Smoke Out the White House

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Inspired by a warning from comedian Bill Maher that progress on marijuana reform could be rolled back after President Obama leaves office, advocates in the nation's capital have announced a bold protest next month to press Obama to move on marijuana while he still can.

While Obama has largely not interfered with marijuana legalization in states that have approved it, he has also signaled that he is not going to be proactive on the issue. A little more than a month ago, he said marijuana reform is not on his list of end-of-term priorities, and his press spokesperson, Josh Earnest, paraphrased his position thusly: "'If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you're advocating, then why don't you pass legislation about it and we'll see what happens.'"

Led by indomitable DC activist Adam Eidinger, the man behind the District's successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2014, the DC Cannabis Campaign is instead calling for supporters to gather in front of the White House to demand that Obama reschedule marijuana through executive action as he has the power to do, and that he pardon people jailed for marijuana crimes. Attendees will be encouraged to fire up in acts of civil disobedience.

In an interview with US News and World Report, Eidinger predicted at least a thousand people would show up, and maybe many, many more.

"There is a huge pent-up demand for this right now, we actually do have the support to do this," he said. "We're calling on the whole country to come. This is a national mobilization. Some of us may end up in jail, and that's fine. It's actually necessary at this point."

Eidinger said the DC Cannabis Campaign has polled its supporters on whether to organize the protest after Maher warned on his HBO show legalization in the states is at risk as long as federal pot prohibition remains. Maher toked up on air as he issued his warning. Maher will be invited to attend the protest, Eidinger said.

"We have to take action now, that's the idea," Eidinger explained. "If it's not going to happen under Obama, it's sure as hell not going to happen with Hillary."

Obama, who has said he considers marijuana no more harmful than alcohol, represents the best chance for rescheduling marijuana, and for emptying the prisons of pot offenders, Eidinger argued.

"He should pardon tens of thousands of marijuana growers in jail right now. And he should be pardoning them all," he says. "The war on drugs is a failure? Mass incarceration is a failure? Then do something about it."

Protestors are not anti-Obama, Eidinger said, they just want him to do the right thing.

"This is going to be an extremely personal protest with the president," Eidinger says. "It is not going to be Trump people out there. This is going to be his so-called base that thought he would do something for us essentially giving up. The only way to stop this protest is to start doing something. We threw the gauntlet down today, essentially."

See Maher's comments here:

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