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President Obama, Pardon Both the Turkey and Drug War Prisoners for the Holidays


On November 27th  President Obama will continue the Thanksgiving tradition of presidents pardoning a turkey.

The National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, a ceremony at the White House, is where the president of the United States pardons a turkey and sets it free instead of slaughtering it and making it someone’s Thanksgiving dinner.

As someone who has been called a turkey on more than one occasion, and who was granted executive clemency stemming from a drug conviction, I have found a spiritual connection to the subject of the turkey pardon. In 1985, I was arrested when I got caught up in a drug sting. I delivered four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, New York. Twenty cops came out of nowhere and I was placed under arrest. I did everything I could do wrong and was sentenced to 15 years to life under the Rockefeller Drug Laws on New York State. I was set free in 1997 after serving 12 years.

I support and applaud President Obama’s treatment of turkeys. But I have to ask the president: what about the treatment of the more than 100,000 people who are incarcerated in the federal system because of the war on drugs?

Surely some of these non-violent drug offenders deserve treatment equal to a turkey pardon? I would think so. But if you look at Obama’s record on the use of executive clemency which includes pardons and commutation of sentences, you would have to say that he has more respect for turkeys than drug war offenders. President Obama has granted only 39 pardons so far, which ranks him at the bottom of the pile in presidents who have exercised this power.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing a speech that Attorney General Eric Holder gave calling for criminal justice reforms which would ease certain drug sentences. It was nice to hear. But knowing how the criminal justice system works, I had my doubts on what effects it would have on prisoners who were serving long drug sentences and who were not eligible for judicial relief under the proposed changes suggested by Holder.

In particular, I pointed out the 5,000 or so prisoners who didn’t get judicial relief under the changes Obama signed into law under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. I asked President Obama at that time to use his presidential authority to pardon and, in particular, commute the sentences of people who were charged under the old 100-to-one crack to powder cocaine ratio. It would be a great move by President Obama. With a swipe of his pen, the president could give a chance to those nonviolent drug offenders who are stuck in prison, and help them return to their families.

Many of us are praying that President Obama will show the same compassion he has for the turkey he will pardon this week and use that same compassion for those drug offenders who have fallen through the cracks of drug law reform who are ready to return to society.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and Communications Specialist for Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: 



Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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