A Trump war on drugs may include clemency for non-violent drug offenses.
For most of the 20th century, conservative politicians in America were some of the biggest opponents of cannabis. In fact, anti-drug advocates still quote slogans from Ronald Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’.
Fortunately, conservative politics in the U.S. have taken a less-traditional turn in recent years. Current president, Donald Trump, often favors policies more in line with libertarian viewpoints. Especially when it comes to states’ rights to make their own laws about certain issues. This makes a Trump war on drugs a different beast altogether.
When it comes to his approach to cannabis, Donald Trump became an unexpected champion of the industrial hemp movement when he signed the Farm Bill into law in 2018. This law reclassified hemp with less than .3% THC as an agricultural commodity. The president also stated during the 2016 election that he was “in favor of [medical marijuana] a hundred percent.” He explained his reasoning saying “That should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
Under the Trump administration, cannabis businesses in states with legal systems have seen little federal interference. Lawmakers are already proposing amendments to next year’s federal budget. These amendments block federal funds from being use in shutting down state-legal cannabis programs. It looks like the US federal government is resolving to let the cannabis industry continue. Many believe that federal regulation of cannabis is not far off.
A Plea for Victims of the War on Drugs
With many Americans now recognizing the fallacy of the drug war, politicians are left to decide what to do about its victims. Tens of thousands of Americans are in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Many advocate commuting their sentences, letting thousands walk free. More politicians are getting on board with the philosophy that drugs should be treated as a health problem rather than a criminal one, and that a compassionate approach is necessary.
One such politician is Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). Cohen wrote an open letter to president Trump in June, asking the POTUS to commute the sentences of 16,000 non-violent offenders in federal prison.
In his letter, Cohen mentioned the case of Alice Marie Johnson. Johnson is a 63-year old woman who was – until recently – serving life in prison on cocaine and money laundering charges. Johnson saw a federal pardon in June 2018 after an unlikely savior in the form of reality TV star Kim Kardashian West. Kardashian West journeyed to the White House to personally raised Johnson’s case with President Trump. West became aware of Johnson’s plight after seeing a video on social media which drove her to visit the White House.
Cohen Insists All Wrongful Convictions be Commuted
In his letter, Cohen insists that, in spite of lacking celebrity backing, the 16,000 are “just as deserving” as Johnson. Cohen also notes that the “commutation would relieve taxpayers of the cost of unnecessary incarceration.” And further that “these non-violent drug offenders should be released based on their records, not on celebrity endorsements.”
The President’s policy goals are sometimes unclear. It’s also unclear whether Trump will act on Cohen’s letter. However, some publications note that one of his most consistent aims to date has been to undo the legacy of former president Barack Obama. The previous administration maintained a policy of clemency for non-violent drug offenders, commuting a total of 1,715 federal inmates’ sentences.
Given Trump’s general approach that, if Obama did it, it’s probably a bad thing, it’s entirely possible that the President will remain unmoved by Cohen’s pleas.
Victims of the War on Drugs Get Political Attention
Cohen isn’t the only Democrat speaking out on behalf of the victims of the war on drugs. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey is one of Trump’s aspiring rivals in the upcoming 2020 election. Booker has made clemency a central pledge in his campaign.
Booker, a long-time advocate for criminal justice reform, has promised that as president, he would “act immediately to right these wrongs.” Booker plans to institute a “Restoring Justice Initiative.” The candidate plans to focus on three categories of prisoners:
- Those imprisoned for non-violent cannabis offenses
- Those who would receive lighter sentences if lawmakers retroactively applied the First Step Act
- Those who received longer sentences due to the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine
Upon election, Booker will immediately sign an executive order. Booker’s order will require the Sentencing Commission, Bureau of Prisons, and the Defender Services Division, to proactively identify prisoners meeting his criteria. The law will also permit individuals to submit their own cases for review under the initiative.
Booker notes that, while “clemency won’t repair all the damage that has been done by the War on Drugs and our broken criminal justice system,” it “will help our country confront this injustice and begin to heal.”
President Trump is far from guaranteed to get aboard. A new president wouldn’t take office until January 2021. As such, victims of drug war hoping for leniency from the Oval Office could be in for a long wait. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see at least some politicians making this an issue for next year’s election.
Congressman Cohen said it best: “Justice delayed is justice denied. Please do the right thing.” We couldn’t agree more.