Obama Frees Dozens Of Nonviolent Federal Inmates

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: President Barack Obama announced Monday that he has granted dozens of federal inmates their freedom, as part of an effort to counteract draconian penalties handed out to nonviolent drug offenders in the past.

The 46 inmates who had their sentences reduced represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands of inmates who have applied. The U.S. Justice Department prioritizes applications from inmates who are nonviolent, low-level offenders, have already served at least a decade in prison, and would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted today, among other factors.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote in a letter to the inmates. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”

Marijuana Activists Cheer Michele Leonhart’s Exit From The DEA

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  Drug Enforcement Agency chair Michele Leonhart was done in by her agents’ unsanctioned, cartel-funded sex parties in Colombia, but it’s marijuana legalization advocates who are excited to see her go.

“Hopefully this is a sign that the Reefer Madness era is coming to an end at the DEA,” said Mason Tvert, the director on communications at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Michelle Leonhart has maintained an opinion about marijuana akin to the opinion people had back in the 30s.”

As Bloomberg reported, Attorney General Eric Holder said a statement that Leonhart will step down in May, after a Department of Justice watchdog report found that several agents were involved in inappropriate behavior, and a majority of lawmakers on the House Oversight committee voted to express they had “no confidence” in her leadership. Given the chance, marijuana policy activists—opposed to her strict opposition to both recreational and medicinal marijuana—would have voted her out several years ago. Now, they’re hoping for someone who, like President Obama, is interested in a more science focused response to drug policy.

Obama Commutes Sentences For 22 Drug Offenders, Including Eight Serving Life

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: President Obama commuted sentences on Tuesday for 22 drug offenders, including eight serving life sentences, doubling the total number of commutations issued during his time in office. Calling their sentences the product of an “outdated” system, the White House acknowledged that defendants convicted of the same crimes under current law would likely face far lighter punishment.

From the Huffington Post:

Tuesday’s announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.

The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.

Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  In a 2011 Reason cover story, I explained why drug policy reformers had been bitterly disappointed by President Obama’s performance during his first few years in office. With the notable exception of his support for shorter crack sentences, which Congress approved almost unanimously in 2010, Obama had done very little to de-escalate the war on drugs, despite comments prior to his election that led people to believe his administration would be less repressive than his predecessor’s.

To the contrary, the feds cracked down on medical marijuana more aggressively under Obama than they had under George W. Bush, even though he and his attorney general, Eric Holder, repeatedly promised the opposite. The administration continued to defend marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug, a category supposedly reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse that have no accepted medical applications and cannot be used safely, even under a doctor’s supervision. When the subject of marijuana legalization came up, Obama literally laughed at the idea. Finally empowered to release drug offenders serving sentences that he had said were too long, Obama issued only one commutation during his first term and was on track to leave behind the stingiest clemency record of any modern president.

Some critics of the war on drugs—a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004—predicted that he would improve in his second term. Safely re-elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years. Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:


Bill Maher Asks Kal Penn To Nudge Obama About Pot

During an interview on Real Time, Bill Maher appealed to Kal Penn, known best to stoners as Kumar but who’s actually worked in the White House, to talk to Pres. Obama about marijuana.

Maher: When you see Obama, as half of the Cheech & Chong of your generation, ask him why he’s so bad on the issue of pot. Because he was part of the Choom Gang (Penn cracks up laughing). He must know that there’s a lot of people who can’t vote, can’t get housing, can’t do a lot of things, get jobs because they have that on their record, that he could have on his record because of what he did. And that’s just a hypocrisy I don’t think he should be able to live with. Will you take that message to him?”

Penn: I may phrase it differently, but I’ll see what I can do.

Maher: Otherwise I’m with him.

During the interview Maher notes how ironic it is that Penn, who played the stoner character Kumar in the three Harold & Kumar movies, doesn’t smoke pot. This is not quite true. Penn asked this writer for several joints at the High Times Stony Awards in 2005, during which Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was named Stoner Movie of the Year.

Expert: Marijuana Is ‘Gateway Drug To The White House’

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  The dangers of marijuana use are overstated, and the last three presidential elections prove it, an expert told a congressional panel on Friday.

“When we talk about marijuana as a gateway drug, we have to remember that the last three occupants of the White House have smoked marijuana,” said Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University.

“We can very well say marijuana is a gateway drug to the White House,” he added.

President Obama has admitted to using marijuana as a teenager, and has expressed support for efforts in states such as Colorado and Washington to legalize the drug for recreational use. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, has outlined how banks can provide services for businesses selling marijuana without breaking federal law, which bans the drug. 

That has drawn pushback from some members of Congress who say the administration is encouraging illegal conduct.

Obama Plans Clemency For “Hundreds, Perhaps Thousands” Of People Sentenced For Drug Law Violations

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner’s left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says “Time Flies.”

If only that were the case.

For Scrivner, time has crawled, it’s dawdled, and on bad days, it’s felt like it’s stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she’s still living in the early ’90s—she’s never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.

It’s out there, outside of prison, where time flies.

On a sunny afternoon at a federal prison outside San Francisco last month, Scrivner nervously clutched a manila envelope full of photos of herself and her daughter that she keeps in her cell. As she displays the pictures, Scrivner’s daughter Alannah, who was just 2 years old when her mom was put away, changes from a redheaded, freckled young kid to a sullen teen to a struggling young mom. Scrivner changes in the photos, too. At first she’s a plump-cheeked beauty with chestnut-brown hair, then she’s a bleached-blonde woman in her early 30s, before becoming increasingly gaunt as the years grind on.

Banks Get A Primer On Pot Money

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  The Obama administration, taking the first regulatory step to accommodate the country’s growing state-approved marijuana businesses, issued guidelines Friday designed to bring dispensaries into the banking system and end their risky reliance on stashing large amounts of cash.

The step was a cautious one, reflecting conflicting pressures on the administration.

On one side, many states now allow the sale of marijuana for medical or recreational use. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said last month that law enforcement agencies were increasingly concerned about marijuana sellers who are forced to deal in cash because the banks’ unwillingness to deal with them prevents them from using credit cards. [Read more…]

Advocates On Each Side Of Pot Debate Pressure Obama To Take Stand

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time on drug charges, the Obama administration says it’s time to free more low-level drug offenders.

“This is where you can help,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the New York State Bar Association last week, urging lawyers to assist prisoners in creating “well-prepared petitions” to apply for executive clemency. [Read more…]

Advocates On Each Side Of Pot Debate Pressure Obama To Take Stand

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time on drug charges, the Obama administration says it’s time to free more low-level drug offenders.

“This is where you can help,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the New York State Bar Association last week, urging lawyers to assist prisoners in creating “well-prepared petitions” to apply for executive clemency. [Read more…]