Smoking weed shouldn’t sentence someone to death 

OPINION: Even amid the pandemic, politicians are pushing back on calls to decarcerate our country’s correctional facilities. 'Cannabis clemency' could be a way to get officials on board.

Over the past century, America’s War on Drugs has destroyed lives, devastated communities and accelerated the gross inequities woven into America’s social fabric.

Nowhere is this damage more apparent than in our nation’s prisons and jails, where millions of vulnerable Americans — many incarcerated for nothing more serious than simple marijuana possession — are sitting ducks as COVID-19 sweeps through our overcrowded correctional facilities. 

Photo: Adobe Stock

Call it a crisis within a crisis. Prisons have long been petri dishes for viral spread, and this pandemic is no exception. A lack of leadership, resources, and care have already caused the harrowing conditions inside our correctional facilities to become even more horrifying.

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Reports from inside indicate prisoners are increasingly being subjected to mandatory solitary confinement, unsafe sleeping conditions, and perhaps most disconcertingly — given the fact they’re bottling hand sanitizer for $2/hour a total inability to access soap. And it goes without saying there’s no way to socially distance in the slammer.


An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) at San Quentin State Prison. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Given these conditions, it’s no surprise the virus has already begun ravaging incarcerated populations. By early April, the infection rate at Rikers Island was already at least nine times higher than the hard-hit New York State. Last week, The New York Times reported Chicago’s Cook County jail had become the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections. Officials have already confirmed dozens of COVID-19 deaths in our country’s prisons. The count is quickly rising.

Activists of useful source and public health experts have warned that — without quick action by state leaders — we run the risk of turning our prisons and jails into massive morgues. To avoid an even deadlier pandemic, we must release people from our country’s correctional facilities. Prison officials are onboard. After all, decarceration helps protect the health of people both inside and outside prison cells.

Fortunately, our nation’s governors can commute the sentences of incarcerated Americans with the stroke of a pen. Thankfully, some leaders are working to reduce state prison populations. And yet — despite the life-or-death consequences — others continue to resist calls for decarceration. Why  in the midst of this era-defining emergency   are our leaders pushing back against the advice of public health officials and policy experts

US President Donald Trump listens to Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services speak at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Their inertia can likely be chalked up to the (misguided) belief that the majority of those imprisoned pose a major threat to the public’s safety. This narrative has been pushed to the public for decades, despite flying in the face of publicly-available data, peer-reviewed studies, and plain-old common sense.

After all, it’s easier to ignore the crushing consequences of mass incarceration when you imagine all of the people behind bars as rapists and murderers, hell-bent on hurting your friends and family. That story may help Americans sleep at night — but it’s a lie. 

READ MORE: Convicted for selling, Black man helps start small businesses in NOLA after prison exit 

Despite what many would have you believe, the majority of justice-involved individuals are not “violent criminals.” If you take a look at non-federal facilities. Even if one were to ignore the eye-popping stat that around 70% of the people locked up in local jails (555,000 people) haven’t even been convicted of the crime they’re being imprisoned for — more than a quarter of prisoners there on any given day have only been charged with misdemeanors.

Put simply, it’s much more likely someone’s in these jails because they were accused of petty theft, smoking weed, or being drunk in public than because they’ve been found guilty of something like murder, rape, or assault. 

That’s not to say officials should let just anyone go free. Obviously, there are individuals who pose a significant threat to the public’s safety . But people aren’t advocating for their release. Politicians who invoke violent crime to justify dragging their feet on decarceration are trying to take advantage of an (easily disprovable) red herring. 

Elizabeth Owens protests on the steps of New York City Hall in support of the proposed Fairness and Equity Act, which would attempt to reform racially biased arrests in regards to marijuana possession in New York state. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Regardless of how unreasonable their apprehension may be, we recognize why a politician might consider decarceration to be a risky proposition. After all, nothing kills a campaign faster than a high-profile case of a recently-released individual caught committing another crime.

That said, there’s a politically viable solution for even our most guarded governors. They can use their commutation powers to release people imprisoned on marijuana charges. Cannabis clemency, if you will. 

READ MORE: Beyond the Smoke: Why decriminalizing cannabis must happen now

The overwhelming majority of marijuana-related charges are classified as “nonviolent,” so there would be no need to fret about people thinking their politicians have stopped prioritizing public safety.

And public opinion should assuage any fears an elected official may have about political reprisal. Despite the efficacy of drug war propaganda, the public is increasingly aware that marijuana prohibition was rooted in racism, powered by private interests, and enacted with no regard of scientific study.

As many have already noted, there’s something so unconscionably unjust about a government that declares marijuana sales essential at the same time an estimated 40,000— overwhelmingly Black and brown — Americans remain imprisoned on cannabis charges. 

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Regardless of a lawmaker’s personal feelings about cannabis, the reality is that over half the country has consumed it at least once in their lifetime. In fact, two-thirds of Americans — including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans — are in favor of marijuana legalization.

If your constituents don’t support punishing people for pot in the first place, it’s unlikely they’ll look kindly upon a policy that sentences some people to death simply because they got caught smoking a joint. 

Of course, individuals imprisoned on cannabis-related charges aren’t the only people who need to be released. If anything, this pandemic has illustrated how overdue we are for a complete overhaul of our country’s approach to crime and punishment.

While it will take years of education and legislation to totally reimagine our country’s criminal justice system, cannabis clemency can be a strategic first step. After all, it’s hard to argue the system’s working when over 130 million Americans could currently be sitting (soapless) in a jail cell, awaiting the inevitability of a life-threatening virus. 

We must demand our elected officials move forward with cannabis clemency. And we can’t stop there. Even after the crisis concludes, it’s crucial we continue to pressure our politicians to push forward with more comprehensive criminal justice reforms. As COVID-19 has sadly illustrated, lives depend on it. 

Natalie Papillion is the Founder and Executive Director of The Equity Organization, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on the economic and criminal justice implications of drug policy reform. Contact her at