Michigan's cannabis reforms and commutations are a good first step, but advocates say more work must be done

click to enlarge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed "Clean Slate" bills into law in October, erasing the cannabis-related criminal records of thousands of Michigan residents. - STATE OF MICHIGAN
State of Michigan
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed "Clean Slate" bills into law in October, erasing the cannabis-related criminal records of thousands of Michigan residents.

There's been a lot of good news on the cannabis front in Michigan. Nearly two years after Michigan voters approved the legalization of marijuana, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed sweeping "Clean Slate" legislation in October to provide a fresh start for up to 235,000 Michigan residents with pot-related criminal records. And earlier this week, she commuted the sentence of Michael Thompson, who was put behind bars in 1996 for up to 60 years after selling three pounds of marijuana to an undercover cop, along with the sentences of three others with pot-related convictions.

"I'm thankful to everybody that was involved and I’m thankful to Gov. Whitmer for granting my freedom," Thompson says in a statement. "It's been a hard journey but I'm just thankful that no one gave up on me. I want to use my time to help those who can't help themselves and work for criminal justice reform."

The statement was shared by the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. But Sarah Gersten, the nonprofit's executive director and general counsel, says that while she's glad to see Michigan move forward on righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs, there is more work to be done.

"One of our founding principles is that we would like to see the day when every last cannabis prisoner is free," Gersten says.

"For us, fully free means, first, the release from incarceration," she says. "Second, the removal of lasting barriers to reentry like a criminal record, and achieving a clean slate for our constituents. And then the third is helping our constituents re-enter society and fully rebuild their lives."

Whitmer's Michigan Clean Slate initiative makes criminal record expungements automatic for all people who have no more than one felony or two misdemeanors, who would see their records expunged after seven years of no criminal violations.

The sweeping legislation makes Michigan a leader in cannabis crime expungement. According to Bridge Michigan, only Utah, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey allow low-level offenses to be automatically cleared from records, and Michigan is the first to include low-level felonies in the automatic process.

Gersten calls the Michigan Clean Slate initiative "monumental." Making the expungement automatic helps curb the gap between the number of people that are eligible for expungement and those who actually take advantage of it because they don't know the laws or otherwise cannot navigate the legal process.

The automatic expungement does not apply to those who are still behind bars, however.

"In Michigan, when we talk about things like expungement and a clean slate, that is really relief for those that have already served their sentences," Gersten says. "So that doesn't help those that are still serving time for cannabis offenses."

To that end, the Last Prisoner Project is also raising money as part of its Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Release Campaign to help release the many others who remain behind bars for pot-related convictions in Michigan and beyond.

That includes Rudi Gammo, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 after opening a city-sanctioned medical cannabis dispensary in Detroit, accused of running a "criminal enterprise" because he allowed people to grow marijuana for the dispensary out of homes he owned in Oakland County, where law enforcement has been notoriously and overzealously tough on pot. To make matters worse, Gammo's 6-year-old son Santino was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Gersten says a significant amount of the money they raise goes either directly to incarcerated cannabis prisoners' commissaries, or to their families — many of which are especially struggling amid the economic downtown of the pandemic.

The campaign has the support of more than two dozen local cannabis companies, including Skymint, Gage Cannabis Co., the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, and others. It also has strong support from TV host Montel Williams, who was arrested for a cannabis offense in 2002 after being caught with a pipe at Detroit Metro Airport.

"I got the celebrity treatment when I got arrested, and the disparity between my outcome and the outcomes for Michael and Rudi haunt me," Williams says in a statement. "Madam Governor, it’s long past time to empty Michigan’s prisons of non-violent cannabis offenders."

Gersten says the Last Prisoner Project is continuing to work with Whitmer to provide legal resources on behalf of the incarcerated, including attorneys to produce the petitions needed for individuals to take advantage of the clemency process. Gersten says of all the states the Last Prisoner Project has worked with, Michigan's Attorney General's office and Michigan Department of Corrections have been the most amenable.

In the meantime, it has set up a freedom fund to help Thompson get back on his feet. You can learn more about the Last Prisoner Project at lastprisonerproject.org.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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