Backlash Against Pot Pardons
By Tara Zrinski, P3 Campaign Director
“As human beings, we are capable of painful yet transformative self-reflection, maturity, and growth, and to deny a person this opportunity is to deny them their humanity.”Statement by Bill Underwood during his 2021 Congressional Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, On Undoing the Damage of the War on Drugs: A Renewed Call for Sentencing Reform.
Bill Underwood served 33 years of life sentence for, in his words, “leading a violent drug operation during the 1970s and early 80s in New York City.” Underwood’s experience is testimony to the capacity for human transformation. He has become a compassionate advocate to end life-long sentences and mandatory minimums as a Senior Fellow with The Sentencing Project’s Campaign to End Life Imprisonment.
In an alternate reality, where marijuana was legal to grow, process and distribute, his previous leadership might have been interpreted as entrepreneurial and, without the stigma of criminalization, the violence of his drug operation might have been replaced with casual transactions at a cash register in a store on main street.
With adult use cannabis legalization on the horizon, we have to recognize the fact that the War on Drugs created this underground economy, tempting those already marginalized by systemic barriers to economic mobility such as, red-lining, poor schools and Jim Crow laws .
Weeks after Biden announced his pardons for small possession felonies, pro-legalization activists swarmed the Capital, protesting the “self-serving” and “disgusting” actions of the Biden Administration. The action has been interpreted as nothing more than a virtue-signaling, mid-term election Hail Mary to get democrats elected and is a slap in the face to those incarcerated on marijuana charges– they offer no freedom from incarceration.
Not only does Biden have cause to repent for his complicit participation in the War on Drug, but so does Vice President Kamala Harris. As District Attorney of San Francisco, Harris oversaw the conviction of 1900 marijuana charges.
Demanding clemency for all people incarcerated on marijuana-related offenses, activists representing Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Last Prisoner Project are pointing to a comment on cannabis reform Biden made during a 2019 presidential debate when he stated, “Number one, I think we need to decriminalize marijuana. Period…And, I think anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, records expunged. Completely zeroed out.”
While the president has the authority to pardon, it is not the same as clemency. The U.S. Constitution gives the President of the United States the power of executive clemency in the form of a commutation, or reduction of sentence, relief from fines or a reprieve from punishment.
Biden might take a page out of Wolf and Fetterman’s book. Pennsylvania received 3,539 applications for their Marijuana Pardon Project (MPP), a one-time effort to pardon people with certain non-violent cannabis criminal convictions.
Now is the time for clemency. No one should wait 33 years for justice. Underwood’s moving testimony emerged from his years of incarceration from which he was granted compassionate release in January at 67 years old by Judge Sidney H. Stein. In his release order, Stein wrote, “I watched him mentor other young men in prison and it was a well-known fact and still is that when you speak to Mr. Underwood and are around him, ‘no nonsense is allowed!’” This brings about a culture of responsibility for all the men that he comes into contact with. . .”
As we discuss adult cannabis legalization, we cannot forget the lives indelibly disrupted by the War on Drugs. The humanity stripped of disproportionately black and brown individuals through incarceration needs reparation and redemption.