Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Atlantic: Amnesty for Pot Offenders

In recent months, the Editor of this blog has worked with Zack Hinden of The Atlantic, providing historical insight and original data. Hinden's curiosity was how presidential use of pardons in the era of Prohibition, and the immediate post-Prohibition era, might be analogous to pardoning in an era when public attitudes about marijuana are changing and decriminalization is a growing trend in the states. Here are some excerpts from Hinden's fine effort. You can read the entire piece here.
On Monday, President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, raising the total number of commutations he’s issued to 89. ... Good news, no doubt, and an invitation to consider how we measure progress when it comes to executive clemency ... 
Congress [introduced] a bill to shore up the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Volstead Act. Wilson vetoed the Act. Congress overrode his veto. With no legislative recourse, Wilson chipped away at Prohibition using the executive power that Congress could not check: his pardon. By the end of his second term, alcohol offenders accounted for more than one-fifth of Wilson’s clemency recipients ... when Prohibition was repealed by popular demand in 1933, FDR went on a pardoning spree that outclassed his predecessors, approving alcohol offenders who had been previously rejected or otherwise hadn’t even applied. Wilson used his pardon to protest an impossible law. Roosevelt used his to acknowledge the change in social norms. ... 
The time when most Americans condoned alcohol consumption despite Prohibition rhymes with our own, when 53 percent of the country supports the legalization of marijuana, and pot laws have been curtailed in 23 states and the nation’s capital ...   
The precedents are clear. When an executive believes that the letter of the law runs counter to the public interest, it’s his prerogative to pardon. Consider, for instance, the amnesties granted to tax-resisting Whiskey Rebels by Washington and Adams, to aliens and seditionists by Jefferson, to pirates by Madison, to Confederate soldiers by Johnson, to draft-dodgers by Carter—or, in effect, to 4.3 million undocumented immigrants last November, by President Obama. Just as that decision pressed Congress and state legislatures to come around on immigration, amnesty for marijuana offenders would send a reality check—to governors who wield their own pardon power, to police and judges, as well as to employers, landlords, and college admissions committees—that most Americans don’t believe marijuana-use needs punishing, and that there’s justice in forgiveness.
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