Cease Arrests and Incarcerations: NORML Joins Law Enforcement Advocates, Medical Professionals, And Others On Letter

Today, NORML joined 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, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy on a letter to urge law enforcement officials and prosecutors to curtail arrests for cannabis and to release or grant clemency to those incarcerated for cannabis offenses.

“As individuals and families struggle to cope with the day-to-day challenges of the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is atrocious in the majority of states around the country, the state and local governments continue utilizing precious resources and capacity to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate Americans for marijuana crimes,” said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal.

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.

Further, a majority of jurisdictions that have regulated either the medical or adult-use sale of marijuana have declared the industry “essential” to the health and well-being of the community. In others, regulators have either relaxed protocols or moved forward with new, emergency rules to facilitate expanded access – such as permitting patients to seek telemedicine appointments and allowing dispensaries to permit curbside pick-up and home delivery. You can see the full list here.

Statements from allies

Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project:
“There is no justification for arresting and jailiing 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.”

Police Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director at the Law Enforcement Action Partnership:
“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.”

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.”

The text of the letter:

March 26, 2020


Dear National District Attorneys Association, National Governors Association, National Sheriffs Association, National Association of Chiefs of Police, National Fraternal Order of Police, American Correctional Association, National Correctional Industries Association, and AFSCME:

We are grateful for your public service during this unprecedented time.

As you know, prisons and jails are breeding grounds for infections and disease due to close quarters and lack of ability to practice social distancing. While Americans across the country are being encouraged to self-isolate, incarcerated people, by definition, are doing the exact opposite. Thus, all prisoners, whether young or old, are increasingly vulnerable to being infected with the novel coronavirus. In addition, because asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus, each law enforcement-civilian interaction includes a risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus to either party.

For these reasons, we are imploring you to curtail arrests for non-violent offenses, such as marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale until the country is better able to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Similar actions have already been taken in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and nationally by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Many jurisdictions give police broad discretion to choose infractions and summonsed misdemeanors as alternatives to serious charges and arrests. In addition, officers have wide discretion to merely provide warnings for minor offenses. We encourage broad use of this flexibility in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to curtailing arrests, we are urging you to release cannabis offenders, along with dramatically reducing the number of incarcerated non-violent prisoners, whether sentenced or un-sentenced. By significantly reducing the number of inmates in local jails and prisons, you can ultimately reduce the risk of the coronavirus being spread amongst inmates, staff, and the community. Guards return to their families and communities after their shifts, as do prisoners upon their release. The larger the number of individuals incarcerated, the greater the likelihood and possible scope of a related outbreak. This puts prisoners, guards, and the larger community at risk as the communities grapple with this public health crisis. Significantly reducing the number of inmates is a necessary step to ensuring public health in the face of this crisis.

Many 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 with the understanding that infections in prisons and jails are rampant, and releasing inmates could save the lives of not only inmates but also the custodial, medical, and safety staff that serve them.

In closing, we are imploring you to dramatically curtail arrests and incarceration for non-violent crimes, including ceasing arrests for cannabis offenses and releasing or granting clemency to those incarcerated for cannabis offenses. We hope you agree that the foremost priority during this crisis is reducing opportunities for transmission of the virus, and thus saving lives.


Steven Hawkins
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.)
Executive Director
Law Enforcement Action Partnership


David L. Nathan, M.D.
President, Board of Directors
Doctors for Cannabis Regulation
Sarah Gersten
Executive Director and General Counsel
Last Prisoner Project


Rev. Alexander Sharp
Executive Director
Clergy for a New Drug Policy
Aaron Smith
Executive Director
National Cannabis Industry Association


Betty Aldworth
Executive Director
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Erik Altieri
Executive Director
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)