Ben & Jerry's is urging Michigan officials to grant clemency to people who are serving decades-long prison sentences for cannabis crimes.
Most recent US adult-use cannabis laws include provisions that allow anyone convicted of a nonviolent cannabis crime to have their criminal records expunged. States like New Jersey and Illinois collectively expunged and pardoned nearly a million former offenders shortly after legalizing weed, for example. Michigan's adult-use cannabis law did not include any such provisions, however, so thousands of Michiganders remain locked behind bars for weed while others are free to buy, sell, and smoke as they please.
The Great Lake State first took strides to address the issue in 2021, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the “Clean Slate” bill into law. This law finally directed state courts to automatically expunge the records of anyone who had been convicted of a misdemeanor cannabis crime. This law only applies to people convicted for minor crimes, though, and not to the thousands of people who are still serving time for felony offenses.
Cannabis advocates soon rallied around the case of Michael Thompson, a Michigan man who had been sentenced to over 40 years in jail for selling three pounds of weed to an undercover cop. The celebrity-backed advocacy campaign finally convinced Gov. Whitmer to grant Thompson clemency in 2020, and he was finally able to walk free after nearly 25 years in prison.
Michael Thompson is not the only person to be sentenced to decades in jail for selling weed, though, and Ben & Jerry's just launched a campaign to highlight that oversight. The Vermont-based ice cream company is asking Michigan voters to take time out from their 4/20 celebrations this year to focus on the plight of people who are still jailed for cannabis. The campaign is urging people to ask Whitmer to grant clemency to thousands of other people who are still serving excessive sentences for nonviolent weed crimes.
"We thank Governor Whitmer for having the courage to address the injustice in Michael Thompson's case," said Chris Miller, Head of Global Activism Strategies at Ben & Jerry's, in a statement. "However, Michael is just one victim, and many in Michigan are still paying a price for the racist war on drugs and the criminalization of cannabis, which is why we are calling on Governor Whitmer to provide justice for all those still incarcerated for cannabis crimes.”
“Now is the time to address the racial inequities in cannabis criminalization by calling on Whitmer and all governors to grant widespread clemency for those still incarcerated for cannabis crimes,” the company explained in a press release. “Clemency at an individual level is an expensive, slow-moving process requiring herculean efforts to cut through red tape whereas a governor can untangle the complicated system with the power of commutation.”
Ben and Jerry's, which was actually founded by two former weed dealers, reports that around 250,000 Michiganders are still burdened by cannabis convictions. The company also cites statistics showing that Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people. To help bring attention to the issue, the company has taken out billboards all across Michigan and created an online form to make it easier for voters to show their support for clemency.
Thompson has also launched his own advocacy organization to help other cannabis prisoners gain their freedom. "You got to understand 25 years – what do you expect my life to be like? Where my life is. To me, it’s an embarrassment," he said in a recent Ben & Jerry's podcast. “But what makes it not an embarrassment is the Michael Thompson Clemency [Project] that has been formed. That’s real. I had to fight even after marijuana was legal… I had to still fight to get out. So, I’m just thinking, how many more Michael Thompsons is [sic] in there?”
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