Why Are People Still Doing Life for Weed?

Would you like to die in a U.S. prison for something that's not a crime anymore?

Marijuana is evolving from prohibition to legalization: Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. This year is expected to see 25 more states with legalization bills.

But there are places where reform doesn’t shine. At least 30 people are currently serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana-related offenses. Save extraordinary events, they will die in prison. 

Overturning a law does not exonerate the people who were convicted of breaking the law when it was in effect. This means that even if marijuana is legalized tomorrow, those serving time for marijuana-related offenses will not be released.

“Most people don’t believe it,” says Beth Curtis, founder of Life for Pot, an organization that spotlights people who are serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana-only offenses. 

One person who is scheduled to remain in jail until they die is Curtis’s brother, John Knock.

“Twenty years ago I received a phone call informing me that my youngest brother had been indicted for a marijuana conspiracy in Florida,” Curtis explains on her site. “Our lives have never been the same.”

According to Curtis, Knock, now 68, moved from a small Midwestern town to the San Francisco Bay area in the ‘60s to soak up the new cultural shifts brewing in the U.S. He joined the Good Earth Commune, where members frequently smoked marijuana. But in a pre-War on Drugs era, it was “not considered a serious substance,” Curtis says.

Mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses were (and remain) jacked up on both federal and state levels.

In the ‘70s, he joined a group of individuals that imported marijuana into Canada and Europe. Curtis says that Knock left the group around ’86-'87, but that some of the individuals continued to import marijuana—now into the U.S. as well as other countries. John Knock was living in Hawaii in 1994 with his young son and wife when he was indicted.

Knock went to trial in 2000. He was found guilty of three conspiracy charges and given a sentence of two life terms plus 20.

Curtis was stunned by the magnitude of her brother’s sentence. When his appeals were exhausted, she wondered if there were other non-violent marijuana offenders who had received life without parole.

“Originally it was pretty hard [to find people],” she tells the Kind. “I’d get a few names from one place and then I’d write to other places. Inmates pretty well know if there’s anybody in their facility that has a life sentence for marijuana.”

She vets everyone she adds to her organization’s roster by scouring their legal histories. (Curtis’s site focuses solely on marijuana-only offenders with no violent priors.)

“I started to find them,” she says, “and I’ve pretty much been advocating for them ever since.”

In 2008 she launched LifeForPot.com, which currently features 30 or so inmates with life or de facto life sentences (e.g., someone who is 50 years old and gets 50 years). Most of Curtis’s advocacy takes place offline, primarily through writing and sending information about individuals to congress, congressmen, and various groups that might take up the cause. “Actually a lot of people have,” she says. “Now when you Google ‘life for pot’, lots of stuff comes up. When I first started, it was just my site.”

Awareness (and sympathy) is growing for inmates like Knock who were sentenced during the peak of ‘80s and ‘90s anti-drug hysteria. During this period, mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses were (and remain) jacked up on both federal and state levels.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), recalls testifying before the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the early ‘90s. The government was primarily concerned with cranking up penalties for crack-related offenses, but argued that “marijuana leads to crack,” he says. “Therefore they gave these insanely high penalties once you get caught for things like having over 100 plants.”

Under the federal system, certain drug convictions carry higher mandatory minimums than assault with a deadly weapon resulting in serious injury or providing material support to a terrorist. “Most of these guys have had cell mates who have been in for murder," Curtis says, "but they get out.”

Drug hysteria has waned since the so-called War on Drugs—and some might argue certain parts of the country have downright warmed to marijuana—but new faces still show up on Curtis’s site.

The latest addition—and the youngest at 36—is Corvain Cooper. Cooper landed in jail in 2014 with a fresh life sentence.

While Curtis continues to add inmates as she discovers them (or they discover her), she admits she has no idea how many people are currently serving life sentences for marijuana-only offenses. In fact, nobody does.

Image via Pixabay

Advocacy groups, inmates’ relatives, and others have estimated the total population across federal and state prisons at anywhere from 50 to 100 or more. Curtis has never been satisfied with the soundness of the methodologies underpinning the data she’s come across.

“Finding accurate numbers on this is incredibly difficult,” explains Morgan Fox, communication manager at the Marijuana Policy Project. Fox says that no accurate database exists because inmate reporting is different for every state, and some of them lump all drug violations together. Federal reporting does this as well.​ 

St. Pierre believes the primary roadblock for compiling a complete list lies in the unwillingness of states and county jails to release relevant data.

When confronted with requests via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he says states and county jails have argued that the information doesn’t exist or is obscured by plea bargain deals in which marijuana may be thrown out in lieu of more serious charges.

“We think that that’s ridiculous,” St. Pierre says. “These people are in jail cells. There should be some ability to quantify why they are there.”

Federal arrests amount to only one or two percent of all marijuana-related offenses. “They only get the worst of the worst, the biggest offenders,” St. Pierre says. The states harbor 98-plus percent of inmates serving time for marijuana offenses, and it’s nearly impossible to find out who they are, what they’re charged with and how long their sentences are.

In the hopes of connecting with an inmate serving life for pot, I decided to adopt Curtis’s initial methodology and “ask around.” Robert Rosso, an inmate serving life without parole for a non-violent drug offense, who I’d interviewed previously, introduced me to Craig Cesal via the prison email system.

Cesal maintains that his only connection to marijuana trafficking was retrieving and repairing semi trucks, including ones that were used for hauling marijuana across the country. 

He was arrested in March of 2002 while driving to Gainesville, Georgia, to retrieve a leased semi abandoned by Sun Hill Trucking, a company Cesal admits he did not trust. The truck driver who called his company to retrieve the semi turned out to be a government operative carrying out a sting operation. 

Cesal was ultimately charged with conspiracy to possess marijuana with Sun Hill. It was his first felony conviction. “My feeling about the life sentence, initially, is that it would help my case on appeal, since the sentence is obviously wrong,” Cesal wrote in an email. 

“Several factors resulted in a life sentence in my case, but it was not due to my prior criminal history, because I have none,” Cesal says. “And it was not due to any actual factors in the crime itself. All of my co-defendants received sentences ranging from 60 to 140 months, based on prior criminal history.” 

Out of the 95 sentence commutations granted by President Barrack Obama in December, two were serving life for marijuana-related crimes

Cesal claims the court would not permit him to use a lawyer of his choice, since he or she could potentially mess up sting operations the DEA and the informant were involved in.  “I was required to use a lawyer the prosecutor provided, and that lawyer became involved with selling my business, home, and other assets, ostensibly for his pay. He testified against me in the end.”

Cesal, Cooper, and John Knock’s respective cases share two significant similarities—they all went to trial and they all received conspiracy convictions.

While “drug trafficking conspiracy” sounds like a charge reserved for murderous Mexican cartels or narco-terrorists, it can actually be applied to individuals with tenuous connections to serious operations. As Justine Glawe reported for VICE, you can be charged with conspiracy and face life imprisonment simply by riding in a car carrying drugs—even if you don’t know the drugs are there. As Curtis puts it, “It’s a very broad charge.” 

Equally harrowing is the sentencing enhancement that comes along with choosing to go to trial and losing versus opting for a plea bargain.

“It’s so punitive against the individual who will choose to opt for their 6th and 7th amendment rights to go to a jury,” St Pierre says. “If they choose not to flip against people and actually make the prosecutors work…they will absolutely stick it to you. The more you make them work, the more angry they become at you.”

One thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that the justice system is out of whack. Just last November, the Justice Department released 6,000 prisoners in an effort to ease overcrowding and reduce harsh punishments given to drug offenders in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This move, though arguably a significant step to rectifying a bad situation, had minimal affect on those serving life for marijuana charges.

Image via chrisjanousek/VSCO

“Unfortunately, amnesty for marijuana convicts is not a very popular issue in Congress at the moment, just like in the states,” Fox says

A vast majority of the inmates released in November were serving time for crack and cocaine, and none were serving life. Marijuana offenders simply don’t represent as large a proportion of drug offenders; their limited visibility may mitigate public outrage. 

And of the 20-plus bills concerning marijuana that have been introduced in congress, “only a couple of them deal with the post-conviction situation,” St. Pierre says. “Almost all the others are prospective, regarding banking or changing the system on the front-end so this stuff doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Unfortunately, amnesty for marijuana convicts is not a very popular issue in Congress at the moment, just like in the states,” Fox says. “While marijuana policy reform is becoming more accepted and supported in the mainstream, it is tougher to convince people who may be on the fence to support reversing criminal convictions or granting amnesty.”

Without retroactive legislation, inmates serving life without parole for weed can only be released through clemency, in the form of a pardon or sentence commutation from the president (on the federal level) or from the governor (on the state level). (Group pardons are rare, but not entirely unprecedented.)

Out of the 95 sentence commutations granted by President Barrack Obama in December, two were serving life for marijuana-related crimes: Billy Dekel and Charles Cundiff.

Beth Curtis says she’s been advocating for both of them for years and plans to visit them once they’re out. Another inmate on Curtis’s radar, Larry Duke, was freed last March under a compassionate release program for inmates over 65.

While Curtis was elated by the three inmates’ release, she notes that Obama would need to seriously ramp up the number of commutations to make a meaningful dent in the population.

“These people need clemency to get any relief,” she says. “And for the old guys, it’s kind of important that it happens pretty soon. Their runway is a lot shorter. Not that the younger people shouldn’t be released also, but dying in prison is a particularly horrendous thought.

“Obama said that through clemency there would be thousands released,” Curtis adds. “I hope that that’s true. I hope and pray that that’s true.”