A Call for the Cease of Cannabis Arrests and Release of Incarcerated Cannabis Offenders in Light of COVID-19

Marijuana leaves gavel and sound block.
Graphic image of marijuana leaves gavel and sound block. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.

The Marijuana Policy Project and other organizations are urging law enforcement officials to dramatically curtail arrests for non-violent crimes, including ceasing arrests for cannabis offenses. In addition to curtailing arrests, the organizations are calling for officials to release or grant clemency to those incarcerated for cannabis offenses along with dramatically reducing the number of incarcerated non-violent prisoners, whether sentenced or un-sentenced.

The Marijuana Policy Project, Last Prisoner Project, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Clergy for a New Drug Policy, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, National Cannabis Industry Association, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have sent a letter calling for these actions to the National District Attorneys Association, National Governors Association, National Sheriffs’ Association, National Association of Chiefs of Police, National Correctional Industries Association, American Correctional Association, and AFSCME.

Public health experts have warned that the coronavirus poses an extreme threat not only to inmates but also to the staff that serves them, as well as to their families and communities. The conditions in prisons and jails, such as sharing small cells, going into crowded day rooms, and sleeping just feet away from toilets, are known to cause disease and infection to run rampant. Jails are already seeing a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases. It has been reported that in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, 52 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus as well as 30 staffers. Inmates have also tested positive in California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, South Dakota, and Texas. Prison employees have tested positive in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington.  

Several localities — including Baltimore; Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; New Jersey; Los Angeles; and New York City — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have already begun to release inmates incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related offenses. 

Another cause of concern is that asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus. As a consequence, each law enforcement-civilian interaction includes a risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus to either party. According to New York’s Police Commissioner, more than 200 NYPD members have been infected with the coronavirus and nearly 3,000 officers are out sick.

In addition to New York, law enforcement officers have tested positive for the virus in at least 14 other states, including California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and several law enforcement agencies, including in Pennsylvania and Ohio, are already taking action to curtail arrests for non-violent offenses until the country is better able to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

“There is no justification for arresting and jailing individuals for marijuana offenses during this crisis. It is in the best interest of law enforcement and the greater population to cease marijuana arrests and reduce arrests for non-violent crimes. It is also vital for individuals who are incarcerated for cannabis offenses to be released or granted clemency in order to prevent a potentially disastrous and deathly situation.”, stated Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project.

“COVID-19 is forcing us to seriously consider what constitutes a genuine public safety threat. Criminalizing people for marijuana has always been a waste of time and resources; now it’s also unnecessarily endangering lives by exposing more people to the crowded and unsanitary conditions of our jails and prisons.”, said Police Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director at the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

A statement from Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel at the Last Prisoner Project, “Our constituents, many of whom are over the age of 60 and have underlying health conditions, are imprisoned because of a plant that has now been deemed an ‘essential’ service by jurisdictions across the country during this time of crisis. Releasing cannabis prisoners now is not only the right thing to do from a justice perspective, but also from a public health perspective.” 

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