Advocates call for clemency for inmates serving time for marijuana offenses

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By BRANDON CHEW
Capital News Service

LANSING — Advocates for prison reform hope to increase the number of inmates serving cannabis-related sentences who receive clemency or have their sentences commuted after the recent release of Michael Thompson, the longest-serving nonviolent offender in Michigan history. 

Thompson, of Flint, was released Jan. 28, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer granted him clemency. He served 26 years of a potential 60-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and gun charges. 

“I’ve been talking a lot to Michael Thompson since his release,” said Mike McCurdy, the chair of the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party. 

“What he wants people to know is that he’s not some glaring exception,” McCurdy said. “He’s been serving time with a lot of people that frankly don’t belong there.” 

Thompson was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover officer in 1994. Police found weapons after a raid on his girlfriend’s home. 

“Even though the crime was selling 3 pounds of marijuana, they used that crime to raid his girlfriend’s apartment and found guns in the closet and claimed that those guns were used in the crime,” McCurdy said. “It’s sort of a legal fiction that because the guns existed, they could say they were part of the crime.” 

A Corrections Department public information officer said there are very few inmates serving cannabis-related sentences, and that most were also convicted of other charges.

“It’s rare for someone to come to prison for just marijuana possession. Typically that’s a (county) jail sentence,” Chris Gautz said. 

“Usually the only people we would get would be the ones who were drug dealers,” Gautz said. “If you’re a large drug dealer, you’re probably going to have other things, you might have harder drugs as well. There’s no one that’s in prison today simply for possessing marijuana.” 

McCurdy said it would be difficult to confirm how many inmates are serving cannabis-related sentences.

“We just don’t have the data,” he said. “The (Corrections Department) files aren’t filed in such a way that it’s apparent. We know that there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of people still serving time on cannabis-related offenses.”

McCurdy said some inmates are serving longer sentences due to previous marijuana convictions. 

“We’ve got people who maybe had two marijuana priors, and then they get a third conviction for something like cocaine,” he said. “Because of those two marijuana priors, those added decades onto their sentences.” 

The Michigan Cannabis Freedom Coalition, composed of organizations such as the Cannabis Caucus and the Denver-based Last Prisoner Project, are proposing a clemency project for the state government. 

Clemency refers to either a pardon that exempts an inmate from any remaining punishment, or a commutation that reduces an inmate’s sentence.

“The goal is to change the rules and regulations regarding clemency, to make it easier for us to accomplish that,” said Rick Thompson, a board member of Michigan NORML, the state affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He isn’t related to Michael Thompson.

McCurdy said his caucus is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“They’ve got the membership in their organization of lawyers ready to take on clemency applications, and do all the legal paperwork necessary to get those applications onto Gov. Whitmer’s desk,” he said.

Sarah Gersten, the executive director of the Last Prisoner Project, said, “We’ve identified almost 2,000 individuals currently incarcerated in state prisons in Michigan, either because of an underlying marijuana offense, or they had a sentence enhancement because of marijuana.” 

Gersten said the release of Michael Thompson, who is Black, could bring added attention to the issues of clemency for inmates as well as the racial disparities in the legal marijuana industry.

“It’s the epitome of disparity in this country that mostly white individuals are profiting off of the legal cannabis industry, while others, mostly communities of color, are still being impacted by the criminalization of cannabis,” Gersten said.

Among people with an ownership interest in a licensed recreational marijuana business in the state, only 3.8% are Black and 1.5% are Hispanic or Latino, according to the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency. 

Before 2018, Black Michigan residents were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“It is a national embarrassment that we have people making millions of dollars, and people suffering in prisons, for doing the exact same thing,” said Rick Thompson.

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