So-called Civil Forfeiture: Another Cannabis Prohibition Fiction
Bear witness with me please to the end of what has been nothing less than a slow and torturous cannabis prohibition persecution, sorry, prosecution of a most decent fellow named Bernie Ellis. On his bucolic and much-loved Tennessee farm Mr. Ellis we arrested and prosecuted for growing a small amount of cannabis, much of it shared with nearby sick, dying and sense-threatened medical patients–including some of Mr. Ellis’ closest neighbors.
For this ‘crime’ against the state he was sent to prison, lived in halfway houses, suffered through probation and dozens of drug tests, and, if that was not enough, the government wanted even more flesh in the form of Ellis’ beloved farm. As if arrest, prison, probation and drug test were not enough, the government also wanted Ellis property.
Eight years after Ellis’ arrest, the final chapter on the incident appears to have been written last week at an auction house sixty miles from the scene of the ‘crime’.
The question for many is, was the crime cultivating medical cannabis or the government ‘stealing’ Mr. Ellis’ property? In their misdirected war against cannabis consumers, every year in America tens of billions of dollars in cash and other valuable assets (i.e., land) are seized by states and the federal government.
Rather than twist the beautiful and freedom-giving US Constitution into a pretzel when trying to seize a citizen’s land for an act most citizens don’t consider a crime, let alone a major crime, state and federal government should employ a constitutional-friendly, non-adversarial, logical and decidedly low tech way to cease the legal sophistry of so-called ‘civil’ forfeiture for cannabis-related ‘crimes': tax stamps (the same way far more deadly and addictive products like tobacco and booze are legally controlled).
To medical cannabis activists: This is a long note I sent out this morning to the 500+ people who have followed my eight year battle with federal weasels for the crime of growing cannabis and giving it away to four terminally ill neighbors. I hope that this story illustrates once again the importance of your work and the necessity for strong and persistent voices for science, common sense and compassion. Keep up your good work and I will try to do the same. Bernie Ellis, MA, MPH
Good (really) early morning, all y’all. It is just past 4:20 am Friday morning in my Tennessee deep hollow home as I start this message, though I have already been up an hour. I’ve already had my quart of coffee, my quiet time on the porch with my two dogs and the young brown bats that play tag above my head on my front porch, before the sun gets up. I have soaked in the claw-foot tub, and dressed for the day, in shorts, work-boots and (for the moment) my favorite t-shirt from 10,000 Waves out west in the other Santa Fe (NM), on the high road up their mountain.
Most of the pieces I share with all y’all about my life and my views, both considerably colored by my eight year dance with federal weasels over my federal medical marijuana case, have been written quickly, as soon as the incident or the urge allows. This one, for several reasons I am well aware of, has taken longer to start. What follows is (and will be) my memory of witnessing our government sell part of my farm for the crime of growing pot … and giving it away to four dying neighbors.
I could have written this down Wednesday evening, but instead I sat around a friend’s kitchen table, with his wife and his kids, to let the day out somewhere I would not be alone (and where I would certainly be understood). These folks have been my friends for 30+ years and they are the most complete married couple I know. They were the right place to start this process Wednesday evening.
I also could have written this any time yesterday – Thursday. Instead, I took advantage of our recent three inch rain to pull more pliant weeds in my late summer Garden all day, to begin the process of building my bookend compost piles, to the north and south of my raised-bed rows, with the offal, the refuse, the wild growth (what little of it) still inhabits my 40+ year organic bread-basket that breaths just beyond my front-porch — my Garden. She kept me busy and distracted almost all day (with the help of some donated sour diesel from a Nashville friend that provided more reflective fuel for my internal fire). The more time I spent with Her,the more it was clear that She had been neglected by me in the past minutes and seconds, as my hip and the impending loss of my land intervened. Yesterday, I began to make amends to Her and we worked together for hours, Her donating the random weeds that had sprouted in Her presence and me accepting them as a deposit on next year’s abundance.
So, after two days of cogitating, here goes. On Wednesday, I drove 60 miles – one way – to witness our government sell some of my land at what should have been the final chapter in my fight to save my farm. The thing is, in saving most of my farm, I have learned just how far my country – or the fundamental, freedom-loving foundation of it – has been lost in our war on (some) drugs. So read and weep (or get mad as hell) and let me hear from you. All y’all — my flesh-and-blood and virtual friends, my fellow warriors for science, common sense and compassion, my fellow protectors and benefactors of the Goddess (and the rest of you too.)
Here goes ….
It was early when I got up Wednesday, but not too early. The forced sale of my 25 acres (as a plea bargain to save the remaining 147 acres) was not happening until 1:45 pm and it was just now 5:30 am. But the joys of living in my country include ritual, both of necessity and of intention, and my rituals spread out in front of me to fill the hours before my trip north began. No rain yet (three weeks dry here, in almost constant 110 degree heat index, brutal), so I spent an hour hosing cold spring water onto the two late summer Garden rows – the ones with alternating sweet corn and cantaloupes, with one section of sunflowers and another of late yellow crook-neck squash. Soaking them down as much as possible, them and my out-of-place baby watermelons, beginning to look like they just might feed me (and others) yet. Time to (not) kill, time to breathe.
Getting centered is always good, and it was good on Wednesday. In truth, I had been preparing for this day for eight years but, since the government had sprung the sale out of the blue last month, it was still something I was not really prepared for. (As my late (psychiatrist) daddy used to say, “the healing of a fractured relationship does not begin with the separation, but the divorce.”) At that moment, though, the 25 acres was not still mine (having signed it over to the weasels in December), but it was not yet someone else’s. That was coming now, though, like a freight train.
One good thing about recovering from my hip surgery is that I have become more intentional with my time away from the farm. So today, knowing that I would have to drive north of Nashville to lose my land, I made a list of everything that needed doing in Nashville. Delivering a big sack of sweet basil to a new friend to feed her sons, returning books and movies (“Apocalypse Now”) to an older friend, making copies at Kinko’s and eating green curry at the International Market. There was more (other) stuff to do, and so I left the land by mid-morning.
The drive to Nashville always provides two choices – follow the Natchez Trace on its secluded gentle roller-coaster ride along the “Path of Peace” or take Old Hillsboro road. The second choice allows me to drive a little bit faster, and to stop in Leiper’s Fork, which I did for gas. Another hour or so in and around Nashville completing the chores and there was nothing left to do but show up to the sale. For all that I had done to distract myself, I was still the third one there.
It remains weird that the feds had chosen not to sell my land actually – you know – on the land. Maybe they knew that their extortion of me still rubbed my neighbors, as well as the local media and medical marijuana activists in lots of places, the wrong way and that some of them might show up to shine a “shame on you” light on their activities. Certainly the fact that my neighbors had spent weeks tearing down the gaudy yellow “auction” signs the feds had paid to litter around our back roads, depositing them at the head of my driveway each morning, might have given them a clue. So, for whatever reason, the feds bundled my land with four other sales and conducted the auction as far from my farm as they could get. I am sure they will claim efficiency as their motive – I will always and forever claim it was chicken-shit.
When I arrived at the tidy brick house near an industrial park in Whites Creek, the auctioneers had just started unloading their papers and other equipment. There were a few folks there, including one (a new neighbor I had just met in the weeks leading up to the sale) who had told me he would bid. Then I noticed another neighbor, a carpenter who had built the sun-porch on my home, who was there with another friend of his in hopes of getting the land too. There were at least three other groups of folks, a young man with a “Co-op” hat and his dad, two husky country-looking boys probably in their 40s and an withered old man standing next to a G. Gordon Liddy look-alike. All those folks had made the drive to bid on my land, and they made up two-thirds of the crowd.
In addition to taking bids there, these very efficient auctioneers (who had told me they do a “lot of this” for the government, so they knew their deal) were equipped to accept on-line and phone bids. But they were there to move fast, and then to move on.
Two of the five pieces sold before mine, both nice homes in nice neighborhoods in Clarksville and Nashville. The second one, an almost 3,000 square foot home that looked very substantial and well-maintained in the photos at the auction, went for less than $20,000 – in less than two minutes. Everyone there looked as amazed as me. I would know in a minute just what my land would bring.
But, first, as background (and to introduce a little suspense), let me remind all y’all that my surrendering this 25 acres was to prevent a “summary judgment” decision by my federal judge to give the feds my entire 172 acre farm or to place a permanent $250,000 lien on my property to satisfy our government’s view of justice in my case. Justice that, in their opinion, had not yet been satisfied by my $60,000 in legal bills $500,000 in lost salary, eighteen months in a federal Bureau of Prisons halfway house and three years ever since unemployed.
For the crime of growing seven pounds of pot and giving it away to four terminally ill neighbors, a crime that I never denied I committed from the moment that two helicopters and ten four-wheelers descended on my farm. One big lesson here – if you cooperate with the feds, they will want to know just how much bull-shit you can take. (Obviously I can take a lot)
Our final plea agreement, in which I surrendered the 25 acres, saved the rest of my farm and saved me from having to live under the burden of a $quarter-million$ lien for the rest of my life. The feds agreed to take whatever they could get for the 25 acres, in return for which they agreed to get out of my life. (More on that later.)
At the time of our plea agreement, the feds’ appraiser had estimated that the 25 acres was worth between $170,000 – $220,000, and that appraisal (I am sure) is what turned the tide toward a final resolution last December. Now back to the sale.
The bidding on my land opened with an on-line bid — of $30,000. (My guess is that this bid came from Arizona, where two other new friends who had already bought 15 acres from me that fronted the 25 acres (for $125,000, two years ago) were trying to protect their rears – and mine.) People whistled in the crowd, and a few jumped in with slightly higher bids. But there was to be no feeding frenzy here today. The bidding quickly stalled, the unseen internet bidders fell silent, and the land was sold ….. for $35,000. To the G. Gordon Liddy look-alike – the only person at the auction who looked out-of-place for my bucolic ‘hood.
No matter. After shaking hands with the folks there I knew (as well as to the country folks I did not), I went over and shook G. Gordon’s hand, told him who I was and said I would be happy to answer his questions. The first thing that was obvious was that he had never even bothered to look at my land beforehand. He asked how much road frontage came with the land (my answer: “None”). He asked how big the pond was on the land. (My answer” “What pond?”) He asked about the driveway. (My answer: there is an unimproved easement, back to the start of the land, but that will require building a 300 yard+ driveway that doesn’t now exist.) With each of my answers, G. Gordon’s mustache drooped a bit more.
I saved the best news for him to experience in the flesh. I neglected to tell G. Gordon that his new land in the country was bordered by the no-longer-young man from whom I bought the land a decade ago (to keep my then-young neighbor from losing the land to an alcohol and cocaine-fueled bankruptcy) and that neighbor had just moved two dilapidated trailers into his side field to join the dozen rusting cars and trucks up on bricko–blocks already scattered all along my (former) land’s western view. Everyone else who bid on my land on Wednesday knew about that scenery. G. Gordon did not.
I can’t wait to see his face.
So that was it, folks. Seven years of heart-ache ended in three minutes of cold-cash bids. I was glad (I suppose) that it was over. And I was very glad that my land brought so little to the feds. In fact, I drove home hoping that the last prosecutor I dealt with (dense between the ears, deficient in the heart) would choke on the news of the pitiful return the land brought. Choke on it … and die.
I have learned and (and re-learned, one day at a time) that keeping an attitude of gratitude is the best way to face everything and recover. So it was on Wednesday. But two things kept eating me, and I suspect they always will. Unbeknownst to me and to my neighbors who bid on the land, they were instructed before the sale that the US Marshalls had imposed another restriction on the sale of my land that would prohibit anyone that day (including, especially, me) from bidding on the land with the intention of selling it or otherwise returning it to me. They repeated that extra-judicial restriction (which none of us, including my judge, knew about or acquiesced to) several times before the sale. Mind you, no one was there to buy the land for me, and I hardly have a pot to piss in these days, much less more money to throw down a fetid federal rat-hole. But just the thought of that final example of arrogant federal flatulence posing for law-and-order reminded me of it all.
And some of that “all” was what the 25 acres meant to me. Even though it was not part of my original farm, it was land that I learned to cut and haul hay on (when I helped my young neighbor’s daddy, Sharkey Shouse, put up hay for his jacks and jennies). It was land that I had fenced, not once but twice. It was land I had kept clean, before it was my land and after. It was land from which I had cut firewood, and witnessed the wonder of an ice-storm’s aftermath, coating the tall grass and every hanging tree twig and branch with ice that sparkled like a billion little prismic rainbows. That was what that 25 acres meant to me.
What it was to the feds was one more chance to drown the American dream in the drug war’s civil asset forfeiture bath-tub, one more chance to demonstrate that growing pot is the crime that keeps on punishing – more than murder, more than rape, more than election fraud or fouling our seas. More than almost anything.
That is where I want to leave all y’all this morning. But – to be clear – I am not leaving you at the end of this story. I am leaving you in the middle of this struggle. No one else (or precious few) should have to go through what my last eight years have been. Our failed war on drugs – and the steroided, well-armed, civil liberties-trampling “drug worriers” that it has unleashed like so many rabid flying monkeys on us – has got to stop. And it has to stop soon.
I helped elect President Obama (almost all of us did) for many reasons, including his pledge to allow cannabis/marijuana to be returned to the medical pharmacopoeia. I celebrated when AG Holder announced last October that the feds would no longer go after participants in lawfully-established state medical marijuana programs. I have been encouraged by the number of states (14 now and DC) who have re-established medical marijuana programs and the several dozen (including Tennessee) who are not far behind. Indeed, there is much to be grateful for.
At the same time, I had to drive 120 miles round-trip on Wednesday for the privilege of witnessing the sale of land that was (and will always be) a piece of my heart. And, three times in the three weeks before that sale, I have experienced my farm being buzzed, low and loud, by the farces of evil – low enough to rattle my windows and blow down my late summer sweet corn – ostensibly looking for pot that only a fool or an insane person (or someone broke and in pain) would plant. Though I have been some of the above, I have not (yet) been all three.
My only recourse for these illegal low-level fly-overs has been to drop my shorts and invite the pilot to fly up my ass. After that temporary relief, my other response has been — and always will be — to keep working to overturn the laws that keep these worthless and irrelevant cowardly cowboys in the air. That will be my life’s work. I hope it is yours too.
From the banks of my creek, just south of my Garden, on what’s left of my farm.
Peace out. Y’all come.
” ..Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand ….” William Butler Yeats August 23, 2010