Faces of the American Freedom Initiative’s National Pardon Project: Michael Pelletier

This year, FreedomWorks launched the American Freedom Initiative (AFI), a collaboration headed by former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker. This project aims to help relieve injustices committed against Americans under the criminal justice system and the regulatory state. As part of this project, we will shine a spotlight on some of the individuals the AFI has identified under its National Pardon Project as being particularly hard hit by unjustly harsh criminal sentences for non-violent crimes.

Michael Pelletier has been confined to a wheelchair since an accident severed his spine and left him a paraplegic at age 11. Like many people living with spinal injuries, Pelletier experienced frequent pain and depression, and discovered that cannabis provided better relief for both than his prescription medications did. This was decades before many states, including his native Maine, began legalizing prescription medical cannabis.

Unfortunately, what began as Pelletier obtaining small quantities of weed from neighboring Canada and selling the rest to his friends for a small profit turned into a larger operation over time. In 2006, at age 50, Pelletier was arrested and charged federally for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. His close friend and associate, who accepted a plea deal and testified against Pelletier, admitted that he had exaggerated the frequency and quantity of pot that was being smuggled and distributed. Nevertheless, because this was not Pelletier’s first offense, upon being convicted he was given the maximum sentence of life without parole.

In spite of the fact that he is wheelchair-bound, Pelletier has been housed in a maximum-security facility along with society’s most violent criminals for most of the 14 years he has spent in prison. Now 64, he has received his GED, taken advantage of rehabilitative programming, and maintained a spotless prison record. Limited in the activities he can participate in because of his disability, Pelletier developed a remarkable talent for painting on canvas that has gained his art a large online following. He has sold his art and taught classes for his fellow inmates, the proceeds of which he has used to pay towards his large court-imposed fines.

What makes his sentence of death in prison seem even more unjust is that in the intervening years Maine has made not only medicinal but also recreational cannabis legal. This does not help Pelletier’s case, of course, since pot remains a federally banned, Schedule 1 illegal substance. However, the motive and opportunity for him to resume the crime that landed him behind bars no longer exists.

Pelletier’s health, too, has suffered as a result of his incarceration. Unable to receive adequate medical care or physical therapy for his condition, Pelletier suffers from pain and blood clots. In spite of his vulnerable health, he was not among the federal prisoners granted compassionate release as COVID-19 spread through prisons, and his only hope for experiencing freedom and getting the care he needs remains a presidential pardon.

For his part, Pelletier’s art and a slim hope that he might receive clemency someday are what keeps him going. As he told the CAN-DO Foundation in an interview, “Having a life sentence is a feeling of dying every day. It’s worse than death that happens one time. It’s a living death.”