This 69-year-old Michigan prisoner deserves clemency for pot charges

Published Aug 20, 2020 09:00 a.m. ET
iStock / AOosthuizen

We celebrate the small victories along the way as we watch more countries implement some form of legalization, but we also cannot deny that there are far too many people who are still locked up for cannabis crimes, many of which were non-violent and within the parameters of what would be considered a perfectly legal action today.

The story of Michael Thompson

In 1996 Michael Thompson was charged with intent to distribute after selling 3 pounds of cannabis flower to an undercover police officer who posed as an eager customer. At this time, simple possession of the plant or it’s products were harshly punishable acts, but very few have been handed a sentence quite like Michael’s, especially when you take into consideration the fact that it was not a violent associated charge as he was not armed and had remained cooperative.

Unfortunately, Thompson was previously convicted on firearms charges in an unrelated incident, and with that mark on his record, he was handed an unjust sentence of 42-60 years in jail, a length of time that is typically reserved for only the most aggressive and unspeakable crimes such as second-degree murder. Michael has stayed in prison to serve out his sentence since 1996, and to this day, he remains an inmate despite pleas from his lawyer, advocates, and the public to release him.

Legalization in 2018 changed nothing

The US might not yet have federal marijuana legalization, but Michigan marijuana laws changed to allow for recreational and medicinal consumption and purchase in 2018. It was a hopeful and prosperous time for the local cannabis industry, that was finally garnering the opportunity to get established, but very few prisoners have been released, and even fewer records have been expunged. Despite a shift in acceptance, there seemed to be little to no hope for Michael Thomas.

A call for clemency

This isn’t the first time that Thomas has made cannabis news headlines all over the globe, but this time his situation is much more serious. The attorney general of Michigan has said that according to today’s Michigan marijuana laws, Michael would have only served a maximum of 4-6 years behind bars, making his continued incarceration unconscionable, and if he makes it out of the situation that he’s in, the hope is that he’ll be able to live out his remaining years a free man.

On July 31st, Mr. Thomas was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of COVID-19. On August 5th, the attorney general, Dana Nessel, put out a request to Governor Gretchen Whitner respectfully requesting that the governor uses her authority to commute the sentence of the now 69-year old man. Dana noted that she does not have the power to offer clemency but that the governor holds the authoritative powers necessary to help to speed up the process.

Why Michael Thompson has yet to be released

Cannabis news headlines like this one tear at the hearts of advocates and consumers everywhere, as it is clear that we have a long way to go before the damage from the war on drugs is finally made right. Michigan marijuana laws have changed multiple times to adapt to a new understanding, so why aren’t prisoners receiving the reparation that they deserve, or in the very least their freedom?

The only true explanation is that such a move would set precedence going forward which is terrifying to governments that don’t necessarily agree with the legalization of any drugs. In a country where the prison system is for profit, with a history that is drenched in lies, deceit and unjust charges, it simply isn’t in the government's best interest to let everyone go at once, because then we would expect the same drastic action in the future as other popular recreational substances are legalized.

At a time when we know only a small fraction of the damage that the supposed war on drugs has caused, it is more important than ever before to push for a change for everyone rather than a select few predominantly rich white males who continue to line their pockets by keeping innocent people in prison for far longer than they deserve. So far, we aren’t yet sure if the request will be granted, but in the meantime, the world is watching and waiting to see what’s coming next.

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