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Peter Maguire: Restorative justice must begin with America’s pot POWs

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Medical Marijuana Louisiana

Even as more Americans are smoking marijuana legally, many continue to languish behind bars for marijuana offenses.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Last month, American lawmakers, marijuana policymakers and industry leaders held a hearing on Capitol Hill about the future of marijuana legalization. While there was clear bipartisan support and even discussion of “restorative justice” for minorities adversely affected by the war on drugs, conspicuously absent was any discussion of sentence relief for those Americans still serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

If lawmakers and the leaders of this fledgling industry who hope to profit from legalization do not support retroactive sentence relief for these pot prisoners of war, the legal cannabis industry will have neither integrity nor credibility. True restorative justice can only begin with clemency for those Americans serving life sentences for marijuana. There were no allegations of violence in the cases of the white, black and Latino men serving life for marijuana, yet all will likely die in prison.

Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda, a 78-year-old Cuban fisherman, has served 26 years while Anthony Kelly, 46, has served 20 years (for barely an ounce of pot).

Less than two months ago, wheelchair-bound 62-year-old Michael Pelletier, who served 12 years, was denied compassionate release by the Bureau of Prisons. Kenny Kubinski, 72, a decorated Vietnam veteran with three purple hearts and a bronze star, has served 27 years for marijuana conspiracy and a cocaine charge that he vehemently denies.

Claude DuBoc and Albert Madrid, both over 70 years old, have served over 20 years. Marijuana smuggler John Knock was extradited from France in January 1999 and charged with an unproven conspiracy that was concocted by a U.S. attorney in Florida. After Knock’s co-conspirators, also facing life sentences, testified against him in exchange for immunity, he was sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years. DuBoc, Knock’s co-conspirator pleaded guilty on the advice of his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. DuBoc cooperated with the government and surrendered approximately $100 million in cash and assets. The smuggler received a life sentence and lawyer Bailey went to prison rather than surrender $20 million of his client’s stock.

Retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent James Conklin stated that he felt the sorriest for “the stand-up crooks,” like Knock, who refused to cooperate with law enforcement and actually chose to go to trial. Knock exercised his constitutional right to a trial and was punished for it.

On the other hand, co-conspirator Julie Roberts surrendered through a high-profile lawyer, shrewdly negotiated a plea deal, testified against all of her former compatriots and helped the government recover assets. Although she too was facing a life sentence, Roberts did not spend a single night in prison.

Does Knock deserve more prison time than heroin and cocaine kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a man who was linked to the torture and killing of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena? Does DuBoc deserve more jail time than Manuel Felipe Salazar-Espinosa, once reputed to be one of the world’s most significant kingpins? Does Madrid deserve more jail time than convicted traitors John Walker Lindh or Jonathan Pollard?

The United States declared a war on drugs in 1973, and it has been fraught with contradictions and crippled by hypocrisy and unrealistic policy objectives. Forty-plus years and massive expenditure later, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world and a racially imbalanced, two-tiered judicial system under which black teens caught with a handful of crack rocks do hard time in state prisons while the bankers who launder Mexican cocaine cartels’ blood-stained billions simply pay fines.

This month, after serving 30 years of a life sentence for marijuana and hashish smuggling, terminally ill Calvin Robinson was granted a compassionate release from prison. While this is a step in the right direction, it still falls far short of justice. Vietnam veteran Kubinski put it best: “Now I am a POW of another war with no clear mission. This time I am the enemy of the country I love and had sacrificed for.”

Peter Maguire is the author of “Law and War,” “Facing Death in Cambodia” and “Thai Stick.” He is a historian and former war-crimes investigator who has taught law and war theory at Columbia University, Bard College and University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

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