Tommy Chong currently has a petition at the White House asking President Obama for a pardon. Judging from a myriad of comments in the court of social media, largely from people who only read headlines, it’s clear many people don’t actually understand what this means. To begin with Chong is not currently incarcerated, so we can shelve all the “Free Tommy” outrage that has been bubbling up. Chong is out and about and living in the free world.
The terms commutation, clemency and pardon are often misunderstood by the public. If Chong receives a pardon, that means he will have the rights typically taken away from convicted felons - such as the right to vote, hold elected office, serve on a jury, or work in certain types of industries - restored.
I am ALL for Tommy Chong getting a pardon. I hope he does. The case that sent him to federal prison in 2003 was obviously a setup in order to make an example of a high profile celebrity. I am a big fan of Tommy Chong and I believe what was done to him by the United States federal government is unconscionable. Without a doubt he deserves and full and complete pardon.
Pardon for Chong rates low down the list
The cannabis community is demanding justice for Tommy too. I see posts crossing my social media feeds about it frequently and at least 20 different individuals have invited me to sign the White House petition asking President Obama to grant Tommy Chong a pardon. And I have done so. That said, I am not overly concerned or invested one way or another if Tommy Chong actually gets a pardon. I hope he does. Mazel Tov. But from the perspective of triage for righting justice department injustices, a pardon for Tommy Chong rates pretty far down on the list.
Let’s put this in perspective. Tommy Chong spent nine months in a low security prison camp and now lives in freedom. Meanwhile we still have individuals in federal prisons serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) or de-facto life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses. Unless the President grants them a sentence commutation, these men will die behind bars.
For many, no light at the end of the tunnel
Let that sink in for a moment. You are in prison for marijuana and, unlike Tommy Chong, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Forget pardons, if the President does not grant you clemency and commute your sentence, you will live out your entire life behind bars without having any hope of ever being released.
I appreciate that Tommy Chong is a celebrity who can shed some much needed light on the shocking tactics and practices the Justice Department employs against citizens of this country, but I wish he would use his platform to speak about the ongoing federal injustices surrounding marijuana that make his experience seem like a walk in the park in comparison.
I also wish the cannabis community would channel even a fraction of the outrage and outpouring I have seen for Tommy Chong towards those paying the ultimate price for their involvement with marijuana, those serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) in federal prison.
Like Tommy Chong, most everyone serving life for marijuana was convicted of a conspiracy. While that word might sound scary to the uninitiated, it shouldn’t. It takes almost nothing be considered a part of a “conspiracy.” I guarantee everyone reading this article is guilty of some sort of illegal “conspiracy.” All a conspiracy charge means is you know someone, or talked to someone, or know about some part of a “crime.”
According to the law, everyone who is involved in a conspiracy is equally guilty, regardless how much or how little they actually participated. It takes no actual evidence to be convicted of a conspiracy charge. All that is needed for a conviction is the word of cooperating informants or co-defendants. Those people are trying to avoid prison time themselves and likewise have big motivation to lie.
This system of so-called “justice” has left us in a situation where the true “kingpins” of large-scale drug operations do little to no prison time, while minor players like Craig Cesal, who repaired trucks that had been used to haul illegal marijuana; or Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda, who watched the place where marijuana was stored; end up with sentences of Life Without Parole.
In the process of using his celebrity to talk about receiving a full pardon, Tommy Chong might also talk about other deserving non-celebrities such as Michael Pelletier, 60, a paraplegic since the age of 11, serving LWOP in a maximum-security penitentiary since 2004. Or Chong could bring up 66-year-old Paul Free, who has been incarcerated 22 years on a LWOP sentence despite the fact he can show ample physical evidence and witness notarized affidavits that prove he could not possibly have done what the government accused him of. Free is also a huge Cheech and Chong fan, so why not help bring light to an egregious injustice against a dedicated fan?
Perhaps most shocking of all, Chong might talk to the press about how the world’s longest serving marijuana prisoner, 81 year old Antonio Bascaro, was recently denied clemency. Already incarcerated nearly 37 years, Bascaro’s de-facto life sentence is set to expire in 2019 and he will be able to return to his family then, if the octogenarian makes it that long.
I hope Tommy Chong gets a pardon and I am betting most, if not all, of the prisoners I work with through the Marijuana Lifer Project (www.marijuanaliferproject.org) do too. We've started a petition on their behalf through Change.org.
I am sure none of them would turn down a full pardon themselves. However, regaining freedom, reuniting with families and loved ones, and having an actual chance at a life again, is a far higher priority at this point.
Cheri Sicard is the founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of nonviolent marijuana offenders serving life sentences (www.MarijuanaLiferProject.org). Follow her personal blog at www.CannabisCheri.com.
Banner image: Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong at the 2007 Alma Awards. Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Pasadena (s_bukley / Shutterstock.com) .