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Life Sentence

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director May 10, 2011

    [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.

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director November 15, 2009

    At a time of heightened national security post-911, a near-depression economy and state government budgets bleeding red coast to coast, what is the moral and economic imperative that compels some in law enforcement to seek lifetime sentences for small-time cannabis growers?

    Again, cannabis consumers and activists should never shrink back from prohibitionist (and some in the media) arguments that “no one gets arrested for cannabis in the US (it’s practically legal!)” when over 755,000 cannabis consumers are busted annually for simple possession (94,000 others were charged with cultivation, distribution or conspiracy therein).

    Even more so when there are outrageous claims made that ‘no goes to jail or prison for pot’.

    Unfortunately for a Jackson Mississippi man named Ronald Sekul, he can attest to how wrong these false claims are as he stares down a lifetime sentence for cultivating 51 cannabis plants.

    Man could get life in pot bust, Jackson resident was growing 51 plants, officials say
    A 33-year-old Jackson man accused of growing marijuana in his apartment could get up to life in prison if convicted.

    In the case of Ronald Christopher Sekul, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics intends to ask prosecutors to apply a law called the “kingpin” statute, MBN Director Marshall Fisher said.

    The statute can be applied to Sekul’s case because he allegedly had a drug operation for longer than 12 consecutive months and had more than 10 pounds of marijuana, Fisher said.

    Sekul was arrested Wednesday for allegedly growing 4-foot marijuana plants in the back bedroom of the fourplex he lives in at 1510 Myrtle St., according to MBN.

    He is out of jail on $50,000 bond.

    Read the entire article here.

    Think about, life in prison for cultivating one of the most popular agricultural products in America–arguably the number one commercially cultivated commodity in the country. Think about the annual expense incurred by the taxpayers of Mississippi for the incarceration of Mr. Sekul: $22,000-30,000 a year; think about the total cost to the taxpayers if Mr. Sekul spends 10 years in prison (approx. $275,000), 20 years (approx. $600,000) or 30 years (approx. $1 million).

    Rather than tax and actually control cannabis like more dangerous and addictive government-sanctioned drugs like tobacco and alcohol products, is it not remarkable beyond words that the state and federal governments still engages both massive number of annual cannabis-related arrests and the incarceration annually nationwide of an estimated 45,000-65,000 cannabis-only offenders, while still not achieving any of the stated goals of prohibition (view a comprehensive NORML report analyzing cannabis arrests in the US here, read page 45 to see where none of the government’s stated goals are achieved).

    Feds Are The Ones Still Stirring Pot With Taxpayers’ Money

    However, there is a potential policy silver-lining to buttress the expense to the taxpayers and tragedy of what our society is trying to do Mr. Sekul and that is that President Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, can stop these kinds of foolish and expensive incarcerations for cannabis by de-funding the federal grants provided to local law enforcement and their ‘multi-jursidictional anti-drug task forces’, like JET, the Jackson Enforcement Team, which boasts of Mr. Sekul’s arrest.

    How many fewer Americans would be arrested annually if the federal government didn’t fund local arrests?

    Exactly how many taxpayer dollars could be saved if the expense and trouble of local cannabis arrests were not subsidized by the feds?