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Advocates say there's more to be done after simple marijuana possession convictions pardoned

President Biden's announcement is expected to impact 6,500 Americans. It's estimated there are 40,000 incarcerated for marijuana-related convictions.

SEATTLE — In the spring of 2022, Seattle artist Teddy 'Stat' Phillips launched a campaign with Solstice Cannabis to advocate for the release of people imprisoned for marijuana possession.

Phillips' cause moved one step forward Thursday after President Joe Biden announced he would pardon those who've been convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law.

"Definitely wasn't expecting it,” said Phillips. “I figured something would be coming around the midterm elections, I just didn't know what it was. I didn't think it was this.”

Phillips' campaign with Solstice Cannabis is called "Free the Homies." In May, Solstice Cannabis put Phillips' artistic images of people imprisoned for cannabis possession on its products.

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"I was really taken aback by the story of Allen Russell, who's serving life for marijuana possession in Mississippi," said Phillips.

The campaign sold out.

Biden's announcement is expected to impact 6,500 Americans. It's estimated there are 40,000 people incarcerated for marijuana, according to the Last Prisoner Project.

"This is a movement, and this takes time," said Yoko Miyashita, the CEO of Leafly, a Seattle-based online cannabis marketplace that works to be a resource for cannabis information.

Miyashita called Biden's Thursday announcement "huge."

"It has impacts on housing,” said Miyashita. “When you're applying to rent a property, they check if you have a criminal record. It has impacts on your family status. If you're trying to seek custody of a child, this can impact you negatively. Think about all the jobs and background searches that are done.”

However, both Miyashita and Phillips called the action an initial step as most marijuana convictions happen at a state level. For example, for Allen Russell, Biden’s announcement has zero impact on his life sentence. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 for being in possession of 1.05 ounces of marijuana.

"The real work is going to start happening at the state level and the local level. Governors will have to start getting involved and really try to push this through," said Phillips.

Washington state has taken some steps to address the issue. In 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee launched a marijuana justice initiative, which awarded 35 pardons. The same year, the state also passed a law that allows people convicted of misdemeanor possession to apply to vacate their record. However, Miyashita said that process can be long and expensive.

"If you have a non-violent cannabis conviction you actually have to go to the courts in each local jurisdiction where you may have a charge against you and manually apply to get the record expunged," said Miyashita.

Phillips said as this movement continues, he's working to launch additional products for the Free the Homies campaign.

"This is the tip of the iceberg, but it's headed in the right direction and that's all we can ask for from our president," said Phillips.



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