10/24/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Prisoners of War

Today over a thousand drug policy reformers are gathered in Denver, Colorado for the biennial Reform Conference. We have much to celebrate: marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and a new Gallup poll shows national support for legalization at a solid 58 percent. Good Samaritan/naloxone access laws that reduce deaths from overdose are in place in many states around the country, with activists working to pass them in several more states next year. The unconscionable 100-1 crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity has been rolled back to a still-unfair-but-less-egregious 18-1. There is widespread agreement among average Americans and policymakers that the drug war has been a massive, costly failure and that alternatives must be explored.

Yet even as there begins to be a glimmer of hope that we may see an end to the drug war in our lifetimes, hundreds of thousands of prisoners of that war, people convicted of low-level, non-violent drug crimes, are languishing in prisons around the country.

There are over 500,000 people in prisons around the country for non-violent drug crimes. A significant percentage are for possession only. These include thousands of individuals who were convicted under the old 100-1 crack/powder disparity who would have been out of prison today had the new law been made retroactive.

So today drug policy reformers at the Reform conference, joined by others around the country, are asking President Obama to use his pardon power to release at least some of these drug war prisoners. President Obama has used his pardon power far less than other recent presidents: in four and a half years, he has received almost 10,000 applications for clemency and has granted just 39 pardons and one sentence commutation.

And yet the need for the president to use his power to remedy drug war injustices has never been greater. Attorney General Holder recently spoke eloquently about the problem of overincarceration in our country, decrying its "human and moral costs," and explicitly tying the problem to the war on drugs. In a speech to the American Bar Association, Holder admitted that the drug war has been a failure, that "too many Americans go to prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," and he promised to make changes to Justice Department policy to reduce the numbers of people crowding our prisons for non-violent crimes.

Yet these changes will not help those already convicted and sentenced under our nation's harsh drug laws. President Obama should back up his administration's stated commitment to changing the way we deal with people convicted of drug crimes by showing mercy toward some of those prisoners.

To join this action urging the president to pardon federal drug war prisoners, go to

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