When history remembers the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is unlikely the focus will be on the things he did well.
By contrast, the myriad misdeeds and hateful actions of the 45th man to be handed control of America — one might even call them “high crimes and misdemeanors” — are truly too vast to mention. On the short list are Trump’s targeted actions against immigrants, minorities, the environment, and, quite literally, every citizen of the country when it comes to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and legitimate loss in the 2020 election.
Yes, even in President Trump’s final hours, the headlines told a story of well-financed favoritism in the form of bizarre, last-minute campaigns for clemency from those who unquestionably did not deserve it.
Names like former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and rapper Lil Wayne garnered much of the attention when the list of 116 names was finally released late on Trump’s final evening in office. However, in the final tally of presidential pardons issued by Trump in the moments before his departure, there are at least a dozen names that are wholly deserving of the action.
In total, Trump pardoned 12 cannabis offenders as well as two dozen other drug offenders. In most cases, those pardoned were serving sentences that can best be described as “insanely harsh” but unfortunately also fall under the category of “par for the course” when it comes to the type of sentences (excessive) issued to those primarily persecuted (Black and brown communities) under the guise of the war on drugs.
One such individual is Chicagoan Craig Cesal. Prior to receiving a pardon from President Trump, Cesal was serving a life sentence for a conviction related to leasing tractor-trailers to cannabis smugglers nearly two decades ago. Cesal, 61, has been in home confinement since June as a result of the pandemic.
“[Just] to know that I won’t have to go back to the prison after COVID abates is a huge relief,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Many, many marijuana activists have worked for years to make this happen for me, with the Last Prisoner Project helping recently with my reintegration into society. My release and my clemency is due solely to the efforts of many marijuana activist groups, and I thank each and every one of them.”
To take nothing away from Cesal, his statement underscores why some view Trump’s pardons as, at best, bittersweet: only those who are able to make the most noise seem to get heard. But what about those who have no vocal proponents? Is the government telling us that if you can’t get Kim Kardashian to book meetings with the president on your behalf, you have no hope for release?
“Some wonderful candidates were passed over,” stresses Amy Povah, founder of the clemency-focused advocacy group CAN-DO, in an interview with Law360. “I don’t know what happened… I was hoping all of the pot prisoners we brought would get out. There were a lot of women, a lot of elderly people.”
Underscoring Povah’s point: all 12 of the marijuana-related pardons issued by Trump to close out his presidency were to male convicts.
Despite the numerous, valid criticisms being made of Trump’s pardoning logic, they also serve to emphasize a dire need on America’s part to overhaul the pardon system entirely. At the same time, these grievances should not diminish the joy or significance of people like Michael Pelletier being granted their freedom.
Before receiving his pardon, Pelletier had served 14 years of a life sentence from a federal marijuana conviction. At the age of 11, Pelletier became a paraplegic. He is now 64. It is absolutely a net positive that Pelletier is free, but how did he even get on the president’s radar?
As it turns out, both Pelletier and Cesal were named in a letter sent to President Trump in November by a coalition of prominent Republicans and celebrities. Republican state lawmakers from Kansas, Maine and Missouri, all signed on, as did stars like NBA champ Kevin Garnett and former Trump pardon recipient Alice Johnson.
Even of those named in the letter, only a select number were selected for a pardon. One massive omission for many of the clemency advocates who were working to get pot prisoners freed or granted commuted sentences under Trump? Luke Scarmazzo, who was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 22 years in a federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California.
Despite being named in the Republican letter, Scarmazzo was not given a pardon, which begs the question: what will it take for his turn to come?
The answer cannot be four years from now, especially when each day state-legal markets continue to generate wealth. Forget legalizing cannabis on the federal level: until drug prisoners like Scarmazzo are freed — incidentally, prisons aren’t doing great with this whole Covid-19 thing — the legality of cannabis even within California will bear a shameful asterisk.