Why Did Obama Ignore People Jailed For Non-Violent Marijuana Offences?

"The President will continue to issue clemencies throughout the rest of his term. I assure all of you, we are going to do more." - Neil Eggleston, White House Counsel, March 31

Eggleston made this comment at a press briefing the day after President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 61 drug offenders, brought some hope to the men who are currently warehoused away in federal prisons serving life or de-facto life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

The Marijuana Lifers were luckier with Obama's December 2015 round of clemencies that included two of their ranks. Charles Cundiff and Billy Dekle are now embarking on their new lives as free men. But this round of clemencies seemed to focus on cocaine cases, with some meth, crack, and heroin cases thrown in for good measure. None of the recipients were marijuana-only offenders.

No clemencies for non-violent marijuana offences

While all of the Marijuana Lifers I talked to were happy for all of those who won this round of the "clemency lottery," none could understand why their cases, which involved no violence and no drugs aside from marijuana, were passed over, when others with more serious crimes were released.

Craig Cesal - a first time offender serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) for a marijuana conspiracy case in which his sole involvement was repairing trucks that had hauled marijuana - found himself perplexed, as usual, to see so many repeat offenders among the clemency recipients.

A prison lawyer, Cesal analyzes and tracks the clemency cases that are granted. Like most of us, he can't see any rhyme or reason behind who does and does not get picked. Sometimes it really does seem like a crapshoot.

Why stay jailed for a drug that's being legalized

One of the biggest disconnects for the Marijuana Lifers, if not for all of us, is trying to understand why they remain in prison, many with no possibility of ever being released save executive clemency, for a substance that is being legalized around the country for medicinal and even recreational purposes.

Parker Coleman, serving a de-facto life sentence of 60 years, said it's not fair for people to serve time for something that's gaining increasing acceptable across the country.

"It's ridiculous that marijuana, which is glorified in the media, that you can have pounds of on stage at the High Times Awards, and has been legalized in several states, and that's proven to help people medically, gets no nation-wide recognition first for pardons."

"Life behind bars for something our last two presidents participated in is just not right."

No matter how disappointed though, all of the Marijuana Lifers still manage to keep hope alive. Lifer Andrew Cox said, "I am very happy for all that got clemency this week and in the past. Everyone who gets it brings hope to all of us who are left behind."

When asked for his thoughts on the clemencies, lifer Ferrell Scott replied, "I just don't know what to say. It's unreal that we can't get any love from the President. All of these crack, meth and heroin cases, people with guns in furtherance of a drug case, and not one single marijuana only case. I HAVE to believe that he will get to us before he leaves office."

No matter what, hope runs high. For these men, who are condemned to die behind bars unless the President intervenes, hope is sometimes all they have.

Cheri Sicard is the founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for prisoners serving life or de-facto life sentences for marijuana. Visit www.MarijuanaLiferProject.org to learn how you can help.


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