A Michigan man who has spent a quarter of a century behind bars for a nonviolent marijuana offense could see a change in his fate this week as a parole board considers his release. Michael Thompson, a native of Flint, Michigan, was convicted in 1994 of selling three pounds of marijuana to an undercover police informant.
Michael Thompson, now 69, was given a sentence of 42 to 62 years for the conviction, a term compounded by previous drug convictions and a weapons enhancement for firearms discovered when his home was raided. But the nonviolent nature of his offense coupled with the legalization of marijuana in Michigan has led to a drive to see Thompson, who isn’t technically eligible for parole until he is 87 years old, released from prison early. In January, Thompson’s attorney filed a request for commutation of his client’s sentence.
Michigan AG ‘Shocked And Horrified’ By Sentence
It’s an effort supported by state Attorney General Dana Nessel, who wrote a letter to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in August asking that Michael Thompson’s sentence be commuted so he can be released on time served.
“Sometimes you hear something about a particular person who’s incarcerated and then once you look further, you’re like, maybe this person deserves to do a little time,” Nessel said. “But I was shocked and horrified when I looked at his sentence.”
“I have practiced law for 27 years now and I’ve never seen anything like it,” she added.
Nessel said that Michael Thompson’s sentence is akin to what would be handed down for an “especially heinous” second-degree murder conviction or one for a sexual assault involving torture. Punishment for a marijuana conviction, she said, of a bygone era.
“While technically legal, the sentence imposed on Mr. Thompson is the product of a different time in Michigan history,” Nessel wrote in the letter to Whitmer. “First, Mr. Thompson had the misfortune of having been convicted of drug offenses during a period of time when draconian drug laws were prevalent in Michigan.”
Campaign Seeks Michael Thompson’s Release
Thompson’s continued incarceration in a state where pot is now legal has attracted national attention, including from television personality and cannabis activist Montel Williams, who was arrested when a marijuana pipe was found in his possession at the Detroit airport in 2002. Williams is part of a campaign to secure the release of Thompson and other nonviolent offenders sponsored by the Last Prisoner Project, a group working to end incarceration for marijuana convictions.
“Michigan’s failure to address restorative justice as part of cannabis legalization shocks the conscience,” Williams said in a release from the group. “Governor Whitmer made a campaign promise and yet somehow, because her parole board refuses to perform its statutory duty in a timely fashion, Michael Thompson remains in a Muskegon prison, now in his 25th year behind bars for selling three pounds of cannabis to an undercover officer in a crime that hurt no one.”
“Rudi Gammo, who operated a medical dispensary in Detroit and only sold to patients with valid medical cards, is serving more than 5 years in prison. I got the celebrity treatment when I got arrested, and the disparity between my outcome and the outcomes for Michael and Rudi haunt me,” he continued. “Madam Governor, it’s long past time to empty Michigan’s prisons of non-violent cannabis offenders.”
Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of the Last Prisoner Project, called on the state’s governor to act on cases like Michael Thompson’s and Gammo’s.
“Michigan is one of 13 states in this country to legalize recreational marijuana but the only one that has not provided for non-violent criminal marijuana conviction expungements or sentence commutations at the same time,” said Gersten. “Despite a campaign promise to support marijuana expungements, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has still done nothing to advance this important policy issue, and people have continued to suffer as a result.”
Parole Board Meets Tuesday
If the parole board votes to recommend clemency for Michael Thompson, the case will be referred to Whitmer for her to decide Thompson’s fate. Nessel has said that the governor is “aware of this matter” and “taking it very seriously.”
Let’s hope so. In addition to other health problems, Michael Thompson tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year in a prison system rife with the disease. During his time behind bars, both of Thompson’s parents and his only son have passed away. His mother’s dying wish was that Thompson would not die in prison.
You can urge the Michigan Parole Board to recommend Michael Thompson’s release by calling (517) 373-0270 or emailing Parole-Board-Staff@michigan.gov.