America’s Shameful Prohibition: Life Sentences For Marijuana

  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former 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.

    68 responses to “America’s Shameful Prohibition: Life Sentences For Marijuana”

    1. Matt says:

      At this point, after your third strike you should know it’s time to pack it in. I’m all for legalization but importing multiple tons you know you’re the penalty is gonna be harsh. If it was tobacco or alcohol he would have gotten ~5 years just for the smuggling. I think that the giant smuggling and subsequent cartel style distribution is what is keeping legalization at bay.

    2. Igor says:

      Only Republicans would consider committing such an atrocity against their own countrymen.

    3. Cat Cassie says:

      This is an outrage. That poor man and so many like him. How could my country my sweet America destroy someones life and the lives of their family without even blinking an eye for something so minimal as marijuana?

    4. Joel: the other Joel says:

      Before the United States Civil War 1861-1865, the demand for cotton made the south rich.
      Could it be that certain politicians does not want that to happen again with the demand for cannabis?

      Yep, I’m a southerner.

    5. The American Genesist says:

      Bartee Genesis, Lake/Tn Colony

      I’ve said it before – and – I’ll say it again – and – again – and – again. These prohibs are absolutely out of their fucking minds. They belong in a mental institution – not government. But then again – it sure seems like just one more tick in the DOJ’s plan to fill the jails they can’t build fast enough.

      O.K. – brethren in the South – do your thing. Texas did it – so can you. You have 3141 Genesist Colonies in support of your objective – to reclaim your country.

    6. Natural Mystic says:

      The U.S. government can see the money in it for buying arms to arm rebels and they can see the benefit in it to continue to supply prison-slaves, yet they can’t see the many benefits in Cannabis to provide jobs and help this country in its present sorry economic state, but we continue to trust these people to lead and direct this country… sad, very sad!

    7. Matt says:

      Who is surprised at the stupidity of the south? Anybody? No… didn’t think so. Where are the states that will be most difficult to reform?

      Every where south of Virginia. Everywhere west of Ohio but east of Colorado.

      Yes, Virginia– Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the rest of the hillbillies.

      They are places where the religious right rules with an iron hand– are you surprised at their resistance to us? We have two areas to focus on: the West Coast and the Atlantic Northeast (from Maine to Maryland).

    8. AreYouStupidMatt says:

      Are you a idiot Matt, they are going to jail FOR LIFE because of a non-violent act. This has to be the most unpatriotic thing this government has ever done, this injustice needs to end now. Who cares if he is importing tons, I would. Not to sell to people but to keep for my own to save money, this governments making everyone 40 grand per person incarcerated, at 858,408 people in 2009 for marijuana arrrest. The whole public is paying 34,336,320,000 just for 2009.

      The marijuana laws are the best con scheme America has ever seen, but not taken into light due to fear mongering politicians who say “If your buying marijuana, your helping al-Qaeda”.

      When will those against us realize, we aren’t trying to ruin their perfect society, but were trying to keep money in the right hands.

      Any politic who supports marijuana prohibition is actually doing money laundering due to them gaining money from the prosecution of non-violent crimes. When it’s legalized we need a council, to investigate how much they have been laundering, then they will pay that money towards the debt that they have been expanding on.

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    10. disabledvet says:

      absolute power corrupts absolutely,politicians and lawyers in government are just following their own agenda’s. what used to be the Constitution is now big prison, big oil, big alchol, big tobacco, all using their influences to enslave the slaves to big government. what ever happened to one man, one vote? when does what the people vote for matter anymore? by ballot initiative referendums, for complete legalization of all cannabis, or spend years and billions of your tax dollars while lawyers and politicians play adversarial process bureaucracy. that’s the only answer. it’s the end of the matter.