Protesters are expected to gather in Washington, D.C., on Monday, bringing small amounts of cannabis to join hip-hop artists Redman and M-1 of Dead Prez at the White House and Democratic National Committee headquarters to demand that President Biden use his executive authority to release people imprisoned on nonviolent marijuana-related convictions.
Protesters say Biden’s announcement on Oct. 6 that he would grant mass pardons to anyone convicted of a federal crime for simply possessing marijuana does not go far enough.
According to White House officials, Biden’s announcement will not result in any prisoners being released because no one is currently imprisoned solely for simple possession of cannabis. The White House has insisted that the pardons fulfill a 2020 campaign promise and would apply to approximately 6,500 people across the country who have federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana on their records since 1992.
The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit that advocates for cannabis criminal justice reform and has lobbied the White House on the issue, estimates that there are approximately 2,800 people in federal prison because of marijuana-related convictions, citing a 2021 report from Recidiviz, a nonprofit that uses technology and data to build tools for criminal justice reform.
According to Adam Eidinger, a longtime cannabis activist and co-founder of DC Marijuana Justice, which worked to legalize the drug in the city, protesters will first rally outside the White House in the morning and then sit in front of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where some people will smoke marijuana at 4:20 p.m.
Although public perception of marijuana has shifted dramatically, organizers are concerned about those who were convicted and sentenced prior to this more widespread acceptance. Marijuana is now legal in Washington, D.C., two territories, and 19 states for recreational adult use. Next month, it will be on the ballot in five more states.
Organizers argue that the country must confront the ways in which harmful policies during the drug war disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities, such as discriminatory policing practices and marijuana sentencing laws. White entrepreneurs dominate the legal market, while Black people continue to account for the majority of marijuana-related arrests nationwide.
The protest organizers, which included local marijuana advocacy groups, wrote to President Obama, requesting that he use his executive authority to release at least 100 people who were imprisoned on cannabis-related charges. They argue that thousands of people are serving long-term prison sentences for marijuana-related offenses “far less than what dispensaries routinely handle on a daily basis,” according to the letter.
Richardo Ashmeade, for example, pleaded guilty in November 2008 to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana. He was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at a medium-security federal prison in Welch, West Virginia, and his release date is set for April 2, 2027.
While incarcerated, he maintains contact with his four children and relies on a Jamaican proverb: “You don’t know your strengths until you don’t have any choice but to be strong.”
He counsels his daughters on relationships and tries to be present in their lives, no matter what they are going through. Because one of his daughters is in law school, he has been studying law while also fighting his case pro se. Another daughter is studying nursing, so he ordered books on the subject so that he could discuss her interests with her.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Ashmeade requested to be released from prison, but he was denied. Prosecutors stated in court records filed in opposition to Ashmeade’s request for compassionate release that he was a “integral part” of a 7-year-long drug offense involving between 3,000 and 10,000 kilograms of marijuana, the seizure of more than $2,000,000 in cash, multiple foreign bank accounts and properties, and the use of a firearm by a co-defendant.
However, during his more than 14 years in prison, Ashmeade has followed news coverage of a “thriving cannabis industry that we actually helped create.” There are large corporations on the stock exchange… making far more money than we ever imagined.”