May 27, 2022

Marijuana prisoners push Biden to honor pledge to free them

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WASHINGTON — On the eve of the 4/20 cannabis holiday, federal inmates again are wondering if and when President Biden will make good on his 2020 campaign pledge to free “everyone” locked up on marijuana charges.

About 2,700 inmates are behind federal bars on pot-related charges — even though 18 states and DC now allow recreational use of the drug and two-thirds of Americans support legalization.

They include Pedro Moreno, 62, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to distributing weed imported from Mexico from 1986 to 1996.

“I will die in prison for marijuana unless I receive executive clemency,” Moreno told The Post.

“All I can do is hope President Biden was sincere when he said he will free all the pot prisoners.”

Clemency advocates recently met with White House staff and believe Biden may eventually intervene. But that it may not happen anytime soon as other initiatives take priority, such as commuting the sentences of people released temporarily from prison due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not easy keeping hope alive when year after year peels off the calendar and I see my grandkids growing up while I wait for a second chance,” Moreno said. “I want to hug my daughter, Alejandra, and see her eyes light up with happiness. That’s all I dream about — that’s what keeps me going.”

Luke Scarmazzo, 41, has served 14 years of a 22-year sentence for running a medical marijuana operation in California and told The Post that he’s also struggling to maintain hope.

Around 2,700 people are currently in federal prison for marijuana-related charges.
Around 2,700 people are currently in federal prison for marijuana-related charges.
Getty Images/Tetra images RF

“When President Biden made those statements on the campaign trail, my family and I were very hopeful that our nightmare was finally coming to an end,” Scarmazzo said. “We are now nearly two years into President Biden’s term and we’re wondering when he will make good on his promise.”

Donald Fugitt, 37, noted how the country has changed in the decade since he was arrested in 2013.

“Another 4/20 and everybody is smoking and making money, but I’m still in a COVID-19-infested prison,” said Fugitt, a North Texas native who gets out in 2024 unless Biden reduces his sentence. “I’ve accepted responsibility for my participation in a marijuana conspiracy. Everyone on my case is home except me. This was my first offense.”

Federal pot inmates include Lance Gloor, 43, who has two years left of a 10-year sentence for running dispensaries in Washington that he says sold state-legal medical marijuana, though federal prosecutors disagreed. Gloor’s mother, Tracie Gloor Pike, says he had a severe case of COVID-19 last year and suffers rare complications.

“A sinus infection has spread to his entire face, eyes and ears. He is now anemic and has asthma. When I talk to Lance, he often says, ‘Mom, don’t let me die in here’,” Pike said, adding, “President Biden can end this nightmare if he will simply honor his campaign promise and prioritize the marijuana prisoners who need his mercy.” 

Biden called for the decriminalization of marijuana during a 2019 presidential debate.
Biden called for the decriminalization of marijuana during a 2019 debate.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Biden as a senator authored some of the nation’s harshest drug laws, but he pivoted ahead of the 2020 election with promises of mass clemency as he fended off younger Democratic rivals who supported legalization.

Biden said on a debate stage in 2019: “I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period. And I think everyone — anyone who has a record — should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out.”

But Biden hasn’t yet used his clemency powers to release anyone from prison and even treated the idea as a joke.

When The Post asked Biden in November if he would pardon any marijuana inmates for Thanksgiving, he laughed off the notion and said that it would be “just turkeys” getting a reprieve.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has deflected inquiries on freeing pot prisoners, telling The Post last year, “I have nothing new to update you on, but the president is of course looking to use his clemency powers. He’s talked about his approach or his view on nonviolent drug offenders.”

Mission Green co-found Weldon Angelos has met with the White House to discuss his rubric he helped make to get non-violent pot prisoners released.
Mission Green co-found Weldon Angelos has talked with the White House about the issue.
Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images for Glass House Brands

A recent Gallup poll found 68% of Americans, including half of Republicans, support legalizing pot, and federal legalization is widely considered inevitable due to overwhelming support among younger adults. House Democrats this month passed a federal legalization bill, but it’s unlikely to reach Biden’s desk due to opposition from Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats.

Since 2012, 18 states, two territories and Washington, DC, legalized recreational marijuana under local law. Most other states allow marijuana for medical purposes.

Weldon Angelos, a former federal marijuana inmate and co-founder of the group Mission Green, helped craft a rubric that would ensure only non-violent prisoners are released and told The Post he has been involved in talks with the White House.

“Candidate Biden promised to use his pardon power to free those still incarcerated federally for cannabis offenses, which gave a lot of hope to many,” Angelos said. “We have had a number of conversations with the White House of this topic and believe that Biden will keep his campaign promise. When that happens is another matter entirely, but we are encouraged.”

Kyle Kazan, a former California police officer turned cannabis businessman who works with Angelos on advocacy efforts, said, “For me, the biggest disappointment of Joe Biden’s presidency has been his administration’s delay in ending the awful duality in which a multibillion dollar industry is being built in violation of the same laws that keep thousands wasting away in prison.”

“President Biden and I were both participants in the failed War on Drugs, and I am hopeful that he will redress this ugly part of our history and recognize the folly of his policy by living up to his campaign commitment,” Kazan added.

Marijuana businessman and pot prisoner advocate Kyle Kazan called Biden's lack of action on clemency the biggest disappointment of his presidency.
Marijuana businessman Kyle Kazan has called for Biden to live up to his campaign promise.
Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images for Glass House Brands

Amy Povah, founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, which advocates for clemency for non-violent offenders, told The Post, “I’m not sure why we are still waiting for President Biden to free all the pot prisoners.”

Povah said, however, that “I’m encouraged to see there is a new pardon attorney,” Elizabeth Oyer, who will vet clemency paperwork.

“[Oyer is] a former public defender. She is a refreshing choice since previous pardon attorneys have typically been prosecutors who often have a punitive mindset toward applicants,” Povah said.

Biden has built a mixed record on marijuana since taking office.

Outraging pot advocates, the White House proposed a federal budget last month that would keep a long-running policy in place that bans local officials in DC from taking steps to regulate recreational shops. And last year, Biden fired at least five White House staffers who admitted to past pot use, despite the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris also is an admitted past user. 

Former President Donald Trump granted clemency to seven people serving life sentences for marijuana before he left office in January 2021.
Former President Donald Trump granted clemency to seven people serving life sentences for marijuana before he left office in January 2021.
Getty Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Support for marijuana reform and clemency doesn’t fall neatly along partisan lines.

In January 2021, then-President Donald Trump commuted the sentences of seven people serving life terms for marijuana — including two men who were given life without parole under the three-strikes provision of the Biden-authored 1994 crime law.

Michael Pelletier, a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound paraplegic, was among those released by Trump. He had a life sentence for smuggling Canadian pot into Maine before both legalized recreational markets.

“I thank President Trump every day that I wake up in a comfortable bed in a beautiful home in Florida surrounded by loving family, rather than the screeching sound of the PA system announcing another lock down due to violence,” Pelletier said.

“It breaks my heart knowing there are still people serving life without parole for cannabis. I hope Biden will free all pot prisoners because I personally know several people who voted for him based on that campaign promise alone.” 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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