America’s Shameful Prohibition: Life Sentences For Marijuana

[Editor’s note: Kellen’s brief review of a new organization dedicated to bringing attention to the numerous life sentences in America for cannabis-only related offenses is apropos as a 35-year-old father of a young child was sentenced in Louisiana Thursday for life in a cannabis possession case (the life sentence was triggered by the state’s controversial ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mandatory minimum sentences).

Regrettably, and discernibly, the greater south of the United States is the hotbed for these kind of insanely long prison sentences for supposedly criminal acts that many citizens in fact no longer believe are crimes whatsoever.

A new interactive map from the Sentencing Project aptly demonstrates that deep southern states like Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas have the highest prison incarceration rates not only in America, but the world.]

By Kellen Russoniello, George Washington Law School student, NORML legal intern

To many of us, the idea of anyone spending life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense is absolutely ridiculous. Yet with the recent passage of a bill in the Oklahoma State Legislature making the manufacture of hash punishable by life imprisonment, it is clear that life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenders do exist.  In fact, a new website is drawing attention to this issue and has identified several people who are currently serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

LifeforPot.com focuses on finding individuals who have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for federal nonviolent marijuana only offenses.  Beth Curtis, the founder of the website, has identified eight people, each with a unique background and story of how they came to spend the rest of their lives in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

Beth is very familiar with the subject: the first individual listed is John Knock, her brother. Since 2000, John has been serving two life sentences plus twenty years for his connection to a conspiracy to import multiple tons of marijuana and hashish from Pakistan and Lebanon into the United States and Canada, a sentence that Beth believes is the harshest ever for nonviolent marijuana crimes. When she talked to others about the severity of her brother’s sentence, she realized that people believed that nonviolent marijuana offenders could not receive such draconian sentences.

Despite having retired and living in Hawaii when law enforcement came knocking on John’s door he was extradited to Florida—a state that he’d never lived in or committed a crime. Instead, John was drawn into a sting operation because of his contacts with a San Francisco area smuggler who had been indicted. However, John was never seen by law enforcement committing any of the crimes he was convicted of, he was never found in possession of marijuana, and his prosecution rested only upon the testimony of informants. Criminal defense lawyers describe his as a ‘dry case’, and the full story is available at johnknock.com and grandmasmind.com

But how extraordinary is this sentence? Life for Pot lists some of the most famous drug kingpins and the sentences that they received, and it seems that John’s sentence was given special treatment. For example, “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the preeminent crack dealer of the Los Angeles area during the 1980s and early 90s was sentenced to life in 1996. His sentence was subsequently reduced to 20 years, and he was released in 2009. Manuel Felipe Salazar-Espinosa, deemed by the DEA to be one of the world’s most significant drug kingpins making up to $14 million in a week, was given 30 years for conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and money laundering.

It is clear that there are differences in the sentencing of these individuals. Life for Pot seeks to identify and make others aware of these discrepancies. Beth notes that the creation of mandatory minimums at the federal level has resulted in the increase in power of the prosecutor to decide the sentence by choosing which charges to pursue. She specifically points out that the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, has given 6 of the 8 life sentences identified for nonviolent marijuana only offenses.

So where does this effort go from here? Although Beth has already received some feedback from politicians, attorneys, activists, and journalists, she hopes to start an organization focused on this issue soon. In order to do this, she explains that she will need advisers to help out, as well as a strong coalition. The roots of this coalition have already begun to take hold, with organizations like the November Coalition, Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums providing support, as well as media attention from a Columbia, Missouri NPR affiliate and High Times Magazine.

Beth would also like to broaden the focus by included those serving de facto life sentences for nonviolent marijuana only offenses, including where older individuals are sentenced to long sentences (e.g., a 50 year old sentenced to 20 years).

State sentences are another area that Beth would like to examine. Sentence reform efforts can be very successful at the state level. In order to do this, however, more resources must be available.

A group petition for clemency is also in the works for those prisoners that have been identified as part of this effort.

“The solution is political,” Beth declared. Legislative action is the best way to address the problem of egregious sentencing disparities. An organization focused on this issue would therefore be heavily focused on reaching legislators. So far, Life for Pot has sent out several cards and letters to federal congressmen and agencies. Beth also noted that advocacy efforts for the legalization of marijuana at the national level must be bolstered.

In these times where some jurisdictions are locking up nonviolent marijuana offenders for life, it is good to hear that someone is bringing the inconsistency and irrationality of these practices to light.

If you know someone that is currently serving a federal life sentence without parole for a nonviolent marijuana only offense, or would be able to assist Beth in her efforts, please contact her at johnknock@johnknock.com.

View full post on NORML Blog, Marijuana Law Reform