Twenty-five years ago, Charles Cundiff, a father of three who worked in a garden store, was traveling to Tallahassee, Florida, to buy some pot. He ended up getting busted in a DEA sting operation, and was charged with two counts of conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana. Because of two minor offenses for growing and possessing marijuana that were already on his record, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Cundiff wasn't the only US citizen who expected to be locked up for life over weed. William "Billy" Ervin Deckle, a Marine Corps veteran and aviation enthusiast who was arrested in the early '90s for flying planeloads of marijuana into Florida, was also sentenced to life behind bars. But lucky for them, times have changed.
On Friday, President Barack Obama granted Cundiff and Deckle clemency, along with 95 other non-violent drug offenders. When Cundiff and Deckle walk free next year, they will encounter a very different attitude toward the same substance that led to their lengthy imprisonment. Marijuana is now legal in some capacity in 23 states and Washington. DC. It remains outlawed, however, in Florida — the home state of both men.
There were others among the 95 granted clemency by Obama who were given lengthy sentences solely for marijuana related crimes. Edward B. Betts from Illinois was sentenced to 30 years in prison when, in 1990, officers entered a motel room on a search warrant unrelated to Betts' case. They found Betts "convulsing on the floor," and called for medical assistance. During a subsequent interview with the sheriff's department, Betts revealed that he made numerous trips to Texas on behalf of a marijuana kingpin to pick up large quantities of weed.
Chad Robert Latham from Tacoma, Washington, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being arrested in 2004 for running a large-scale grow operation with more than 2,000 plants. Marijuana is now legal for both medical and recreational purposes in Washington.
Watch the VICE News documentary Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass is Greener:
Juan Fernando Mendoza-Cardenas from Georgia, who was arrested in 2004 and expected to spend 20 years in jail for conspiracy with intent to distribute marijuana, was also among those granted clemency on Friday.
"I commuted the sentences of 95 men and women who had served their debt to society," Obama said on Friday. He called the move "another step forward in upholding our fundamental ideals of justice and fairness."
Earlier this year, Obama described America's decades-long war on drugs as "unproductive" and destabilizing for neighborhoods and families, saying it has led to even more crime. The US also has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, behind only the Seychelles, a tiny island nation east of Africa. Advocates for criminal justice reform have urged Obama to tackle the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons.
Altogether, at least 69 people in the US have received sentences of life without parole for marijuana-related crimes. They include Michael Pelletier, a paraplegic from Indiana who was given a life sentence for overseeing a marijuana operation from his wheelchair. Fate Vincent Winslow, a homeless man, was the victim of a "buy and bust" sting after he unwittingly sold two $10 bags of weed to an undercover officer. Winslow's prior convictions for two non-violent offenses led to him being sentenced to life without parole, and he remains behind bars.
Friday's commutations were the third time Obama has used his power to pardon during his presidency. He previously granted clemency to 22 drug offenders in March, and another 46 in July.
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