The Next Step Towards Marijuana Justice: Don’t Forget the POWs

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 2, 2016

    C1_8734_r_xAs we continue the march towards ending marijuana prohibition and legalizing the responsible use of marijuana, there remains a moral imperative that we must confront head-on: we must not forget those whose lives have been destroyed by prohibition — the POWs of the war on marijuana.

    I’m specifically talking about the thousands of state and federal prisoners who were convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses – frequently involving large-scale cultivation or smuggling efforts – and who were sentenced to long prison sentences, frequently longer sentences than those given to violent criminals, and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are no longer incarcerated, but who bear the unfair burden of a criminal record for conduct that is now becoming legal in more and more states.

    A Fresh Look at Smugglers, Dealers and Large Scale Cultivators

    For decades, the anti-marijuana propaganda machine in this country demonized those who smuggled, grew or sold marijuana. They were not seen just as citizens willing to ignore the dominant social norms and attendant legal risks of providing a product that millions of Americans wanted, and were willing to pay a premium price to obtain. Rather they were portrayed as evil individuals whose purpose in life was to corrupt and addict our youth and undermine our nation’s strength.

    After all, if marijuana caused otherwise ordinary citizens to become depraved animals, leading to unthinkable acts of brutality, and eventually ending with insanity, as was the official party line, then of course those who allowed this threat to continue, and who enabled it by their actions, were perceived as worse than those who committed acts of violence. And routinely they were given harsher sentences than those who were committing violent crimes.

    Today, as the country has become more familiar with and accepting of marijuana smoking, those earlier assumptions about the dangers of marijuana seem absurd and fanciful, and it is difficult to imagine they were ever accepted as fact. But they were, and the result was more than 30 million marijuana arrests.

    The Perspective of Those of Us Who Smoke

    First, let me make the obvious point that if no one would have had the courage to risk arrest and jail for smuggling, growing or selling marijuana, we smokers would have had no marijuana to smoke for all these years.

    But even more importantly, without a thriving underground marijuana market in America, there would have been no serious marijuana legalization movement, and we would not have four states and the District of Columbia with legal marijuana, and more to come in November.

    Ending prohibition might never have occurred if this were simply a theoretical argument about the wisdom of criminalizing marijuana. It is occurring because there are tens of millions of Americans who very much enjoy their marijuana, regardless of its legal status, and who were passionate about the need to bring it above ground and end prohibition.

    Without a reasonably steady supply of black-market marijuana, this topic would be of interest to political science and sociology professors, but it would not be an enormous social movement with the political power to change laws and policy for the better.

    So instead of demonizing these brave adventurers who were willing to provide us with marijuana, despite the enormous personal risk, we should be recognizing their role in getting us to where we are today, and taking whatever steps we can to minimize the harm so many of them have suffered. That means those who remain in jail or prison should be released, if what they were convicted of is now being legalized; and those who remain unable to vote or are otherwise limited professionally because of a marijuana conviction should have their records expunged.

    I know that some are even calling for those who have been victimized by prohibition to be paid reparations for the damages they suffered, just as people who are proven innocent after years of imprisonment are frequently reimbursed for their suffering. While I see the innate justice in that suggestion, I recognize that is simply not a politically realistic option, at least for now.

    But we should, and must, do what we can to restore to health those many lives we have unfairly damaged and destroyed, and we need to begin the public debate now. Once one acknowledges that marijuana is far safer than alcohol or tobacco, and a large majority of Americans now understand this basic fact, then there is simply no rational basis to leave non-violent marijuana offenders in jail or prison, or to limit their ability to succeed and enjoy a full and rewarding life, because of a past non-violent marijuana conviction on their record. A failure to help those previously convicted under prohibition would leave a moral stain on the legalization movement.

    The Gentlemen Smugglers

    I was reminded of this aspect of ending marijuana prohibition by a visit recently with Barry Foy, an old marijuana smuggler who was featured in the Wall Street Journal best-selling book by Jason Ryan titled Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs. This is a real-life adventure by a group of fun-loving southern gentlemen based in South Carolina who successfully smuggled tons of marijuana into the US during the Ronald Reagan years, before eventually being caught and serving substantial prison sentences. These were middle-class adventurers who eschewed violence but thoroughly enjoyed the excitement, glamor, and pleasures available to those willing to live on the edge — the lifestyle celebrated in many Jimmy Buffett ballads.

    These smugglers eventually married and had families, and when they were not smuggling marijuana, were indistinguishable from their more-ordinary friends and neighbors. Following a 13-year run, they were eventually taken down, not on smuggling charges, but like Al Capone, on tax-evasion charges, with Barry receiving an 18-year sentence (he served 11) and his partner receiving a 25-year sentence (he served 17 years). Yet today, both former smugglers say they have no regrets and remain unrepentant.

    I am fully aware that we have much work to accomplish before marijuana smokers are treated in a totally fair manner. I have written frequently about the need to fix the laws that currently permit smokers to lose their jobs for testing positive for THC, without any showing of impairment on the job; the morally offensive policy of assuming parents who smoke marijuana are unfit parents, who must fight to retain custody of their minor children; and the factually unfair policy of treating those with THC in their system as presumed guilty of a DUID offense, without any showing they were driving in an impaired condition. Each of these areas must be revisited to protect the rights of responsible marijuana smokers.

    But even as we move more and more states into the legalization column, we must not forget the need to reach back and minimize the harm we have caused to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens by labeling them as criminals for smuggling, growing or selling marijuana to those of us who wanted it. Like marijuana smokers, they too are largely ordinary folks, perhaps with a flair for living an adventurous life, with families and friends who very much care about them, and they should never have been treated with such contempt simply for ignoring the dictates of a failed policy called marijuana prohibition.


    This column originally ran in Marijuana.com


    27 responses to “The Next Step Towards Marijuana Justice: Don’t Forget the POWs”

    1. St. Nick 'n' Dime says:

      I first smoked on April 10, 1999. At a block party held by my 15 y/o pregnant friend. I just joined the football team in an attempt to be “cooler” and make friends. It did work. I was depressed because I was “into men”, sexually. I would later find out I have mental health issues. Someone offered me a hit out of a tin beer can with holes punctured in it. I thought “I have nothing to lose” and took a hit. Not much happened (it might have been ash). But I saw I didn’t die from it. 10 days later on 4/20 during columbine shooting my friend Scott asked me if I wanted some weed and I was like “YEAH!” He told me to bring $25 which I got a quarter of good mids. I tried it in my bathroom with DMXs “It’s Dark and hell is Hot” album. I remember things being so funny I laughed hysterically through the whole album and after as I had to go to football practice which I was laughing out loud during. All the football players laughed and liked me and even the coach knew what was going on and rolled his eyes. Me and my friend Brian started listening to Pink Floyd while high like “Wish You Were Here” albums and thought I was so high I stumbled into a coloring book and thought I was in heaven which was a big change for someone so depressed. I did go on to try other drugs like ketamine, opium, shrooms a little coke etc. but ended up only liking weed. Another drug I tried was Acid on about August 15th 2000 and was so high I thought I was in Paradise and “have been here before.” That led me to become more spiritual. Weed is by far the best one of the illegals and legals to be precise. I had a great time during the 2000s got a good job that didn’t drug test only taking a 6 and 9 month break between 2002 and 2012. Your messages are only allowed 2000 characters so I will post “part 2” next.

      • BILLYJOE says:

        Dude, I’m so glad you posted this msg. I to have been diagnost with being ADHD, bi-polar, manic depressive, and to top it off. I found out that I was born with klinefelters syndrome..I started smoking weed when in high school, after graduation in 1977. I joined the navy. My first tour was shore duty, and every individual on that base smoked pot. I retired in 1995. I started smoking cannabis with my father. He said he’d rather me smoke grass than drink, and I did. Thru out my navy career I puffed here and there.

        My doctor agrees that treating individuals with the issues that I deal with would be a good thing. When I get depressed I smoke a one hitter, and I get a feeling of euphoria, and it allows me to deal with my mental illnesses, and I’m in control, and I like that, but you take chemical drugs and they control you, and does damage to the lining of your stomach..marijuana is harmless if you ask me, and now that they have been studying it. You can actually buy the brand best suited for my different diagnosis..god created this tiny miracle seed, and I know now that he must be estatic that someone did some research, and found out that this tiny seed can produce a plant that can actually kill cancer cells, and also keep people stable , so they can live a normal life. One that allows me control over my depression, or bi-polar. When I smoke weed it actually make me want to be a better person. Just because I’m smoke grass does not make me a criminal..I love potheads. Their awesome people. I get together with my neighbors and we get high, and you wouldn’t believe the ideas that come out of our minds..I love weed for it makes me creative..thanks again for your post

    2. St. Nick 'n' Dime says:

      This is part 2 of the previous post:

      In 2013 I lost my job and didn’t have enough money for long enough that my dealers got new numbers and some cut me out for no real reason other than I “acted weird.” Now that I have no dealers I have to purchase K-2 for a horrible deal and it’s gone in 2 days.

      We have to legalize Cannabis for our mental health as “feeling good” should not be a crime. God created it for humans as He/They created catnip for cats. Marijuana/Catnip/ and Mint are all in the same family of plants in the wild and should not be illegal. Please hurry this up so I can get prescribed MJ to actually enjoy life with Paranoid-Schizophrenia/Bi-Polar/ADHD and Insomnia.

      Peace out.

      • Julian says:

        Correction; it’s worse than I thought. Craig Cesal is in for refusing to take a entrapped deal from the prosecution to plea bargain on conspiracy because he repaired some leased trucks that were clearly being used to smuggle marijuana and he didn’t report it; As a result, the smugglers lied and turned state’s evidence on Craig and are now free.

        I really don’t see an end to this kind of state-sanctioned terror and extortion until we amend our Constitution to require independent third party prosecutors to handle state cases and eliminate the collusion between local prosecutors, social workers and law enforcement. We have a system that bullies innocent people into signing their rights away just to make five grand from the DEA’s SOD program for closing a drug case without due process. Fundamentally we have to rewrite the Controlled Substances Act and put the Justice back into the Justice Department.

    3. Don M says:

      The older and wiser I get, the less and less I trust our Govt and Law Enforcement. If these people truly had the greater good of the American people in mind when making the laws and subsequently enforcing them, cannabis would quickly be legalized!

      The longer this illogical-idiotic war against marijuana consumers continues the more I, and others, will come to distrust or even hate our countries lawmakers and enforcers!

      In my opinion, and I admit I am not a law expert, the laws against cannabis are not only unethical and go against everything I consider to be American, they are downright evil! They are probably unconstitutional for that matter depending on who is doing the interpreting of that Constitution.

      Those who want to continue the status quo, like Hilary Clinton who simply wants to spend more millions on studies instead of just ending prohibition, are making evil decisions that greatly harm vast numbers of good people.

      At this point in time I am sad to say that I hate our Govt and law enforcement. I sincerely hope that changes sometime before I die. I want to love my country again like I did as a child back in the 50s.

      • Mark Mitcham says:

        I experienced a similar broken faith with the America I believed in as a child (and to be honest, for many years into my adulthood as well.)

        Marijuana Prohibition. Founded entirely on a lie! It took me a very long time to get my head around the notion of a lie THAT FUCKING HUGE! What I once thought was a bureaucratic fuckup turned out to be an entrenched SCAM on scale that is global, generational, and truly mindboggling.

        And then it gets worse: you start checking people’s attitudes, and find astonishing numbers of them are REALLY HAPPY about all this! They love the scam! They love the lies! They’re all in! And the more upset about it that people like you and I get, the more contemptuous these types become! They laugh at us; they think we’re social simpletons.

        For a time, it was almost more than I could take. Like Neo in The Matrix, the truth was too horrible to accept without barfing. (Oh wait, that was the booze, sorry.)

        But I made it through that stage of my life with my mind and soul intact. My heart is still bitter but I’m working through that with cannabis therapy and the love of a good woman.

        And, for a little “pay-back”, I like to collect signatures for petitions to legalize cannabis; this year, it will be for the ballot initative in CO for legalized cannabis clubs.

        By making society a little better, I make myself a little better!

        Let’s make America BAKED again!

    4. Mark Mitcham says:

      I just want to say “Thank you” to Keith for making this very important point about our moral imperative with respect to those doing time right now. Bullseye! We got to let them know they aren’t forgotten.

      It must be truly insane to be in prison for a few ounces of weed, and then watch documentaries about the ganga-preneurs dealing pounds right over the counter. If we stoners don’t all want to go straight to hell, we will not forget our brothers and sisters in prison! Let’s GET THEM OUT!

    5. mexweed says:

      “the country has become more familiar with and accepting of marijuana smoking”– and I thank Keith and the staff for their lawyering and other vital work getting this done. But, as some riotous rock album lyric goes, the Praw blame is in the “Smoking”.

      Everybody knows that CO and cancerous combustion chemicals are in smoke– and the lies that marijuana was even worse than tobacco only solidified a prior prejudice initially caused by the intrusion of Side Stream Smoke on nearby inhalers by (yes, mostly tobacco) “smokers” who maybe unconsciously were creating an arrogant imperious impression. The fact that riefer smoke smells like food and tobacco smoke smells like poison didn’t reassure those victims of billion dollar blame-it-on-cannabis propaganda.

      Every $igarette– even a Joint— is a torch spewing toxins which assault ($mack) bystanding victims’ lungs and bloodstream. (Oh yes, FASCIS is a latin word meaning torch; the number one most harmful torch in human history is the $igarette with 200,000,000 deaths in 160 years; 3 of 4 top Nazis burned tobacco (Goering, Himmler cigars, Goebbels $igarettes) in torchlike devices right up until C(cyanide)-Day.

      If united cannabreathers now marched forward with a million-signed declaration that they breathe vape, not $moke, thus showing a tender solicitous concern for others’s safety and health– even if we don’t think cannabis is as dangerous as tobacco– it might have a massive effect on votes and legislation.

      Think it through– what underlies that glaring similarity in world ingish anguish between “smoke” and “smuggle”, “smog” and “smack”? As Someone maybe Ellington once almost said, “If it sounds similar, it means similar!” Any don’tlike emotion vested in those other words nestles right in on $moke too. Vote Vapey!

    6. Dave Evans says:

      “We have a system that bullies innocent people into signing their rights away just to make five grand from the DEA’s SOD program for closing a drug case without due process.”

      Julian, we do not need an amendment like this, it already is part of the constitution. I also don’t understand how we passed a campaign finance law, which was then not only reversed, but added a layer to the law not present in the Constitution that money is equal to free speech. The two main parties are acting like Jehovah’s Witnesses that claim telling people not to murder each other or the family members will continue seeking revenge because one you spill blood, you can not put it back. But instead of actually following God’s advice, they make up some non-sense that blood transfusions are evil and missed the whole point about revenge. The only way you can make these kinds of “interpretations” is by being dissociative or by keeping one’s self full of shit.

    7. Dave Evans says:

      Neither of those conditions requires our government to ignore it Constitutional Duties.

      • Julian says:

        I and any well balanced person who understands the balance of powers would agree the CSAct is an unconstitutional breach of powers that gives the executive branch unconstitutional authority to legislate marijuana and drug policy.

        But that didn’t stop Congress. That didn’t stop Nixon or his drug czar or several decades of misguided judges NORML has dealt with for decades all the way up to Mueller’s infamous “Congress doesn’t have to be right,” catchphrase.

        So the solution to the deplorable CSAct and Citizens United is a constitutional amendment that spells out how money cannot be eaten, does not represent people, and should not be used to light the joints of violent bankers/druglords created by prohibition.

        Another 3rd additional amendment should stop predatory loans, forever. We have to say NO person, loan institution, loan shark, manta ray or chimpanzee may charge more than %20, and representatives cannot be hat-switching lobbyists.

        But if we don’t spell it out in great detail, no loopholes, no language butchery, no bull$#!+, and make it a Constitutional amendment the theft and violence will never cease, only change names and faces. And fir that we need a %65 Democratic majority from here to July. (Sigh… The education curve pinhares up the rocky foothills in the heart of this nation… Colorado don’t let us down in November…)

    8. Ron Madsen says:

      Is it the legalization of cannabis that is the issue with those fighting to keep prohibition intact or is it the possibility of an enormous economic tsunami of litigation that will ensue once legal standing of cannabis is corrected and the thousands of people who have been robbed of civil rights, due process, due course of law, and the unconstitutional seizure of property mass forces and take the “real bad guys” to court?

      • Rod is on the gas says:

        It’s both reasons or neither, either way, they’re afraid of us cannabis users. They need us to be controlled or at least locked away out of sight. We’re perceived as being a blight upon civilization. Their civilization.

        So their paramount concern is how to get along with those of us who see the true problem with prohibition. It’s mean and hateful. It destroys human lives. As a consequence, when we finally get back to normal life where cannabis is seen correctly for it’s goodness, the haters will be gone and buried.

        The law is not our friend nor ally at the present. Keep chuggin’ along with your defiance and keep proving the truth about cannabis. Time is on our side.

    9. Hempopotomus says:

      Yes every marijuana related offence (buying, selling, growing, usage, transport) should have full pardons. With Federal legalization we should expect Federal pardons with recommendations to state judges to follow suit along with reinstatement of constitutional rights that may have been stripped due to false imprisonment under marijuana prohibition.

      Can you imagine the lawsuit(s) that are about to bombard the Government / Big Pharma / Alcohol & Beverage Distributors – anyone that financially supported the continuation of a failed prohibition beyond the US Patent date? Maybe some prior to it! Lives were lost in the interest of greed and capitalism with knowledge at the highest levels that marijuana prohibition was a ruse.

      This is a new age we live in. There is still a winding road ahead until we have the “tomato model” for Cannabis. Believe me, so many families are beyond jaded as they are learning that a demonized plant may have saved their loved one.

      As social acceptance is at a right angle, go ahead and have the discussion with friends, and family kicking the perspective to that full 180 degrees. Let them know you’re a responsible, productive adult that loves & respects their freedoms. In turn it’s only fair they respect you for using a safer substance than alcohol or cigarettes to unwind or relax – $#!£ even laugh at yourself! This is such an exciting time to be alive, apart from the whole Trump debacle. Still remember the text message asking if this was real life when the Trump first surged. That’s a whole other bucket of worms though!