Life Sentences for Cannabis
Does the U.S. Really Give Life Sentences for Marijuana…Is That a Thing?
As an advocate for federal prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses, I am often asked questions that demonstrate how little the general public actually understands about the United States justice system. The questions/comments usually follow one of these themes:
How is it possible for a nonviolent offender to get a life sentence for marijuana?
Wow, how much marijuana were they selling to get a life sentence for marijuana; it must have been A LOT?
The short answers are:
It is shockingly easy.
Does it really matter?
Question 1. How is it possible for a nonviolent offender to get a life sentence for marijuana?
We hear a lot in the press about mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing enhancement. Sometimes these things come into play, as in the case of now released lifer Weldon Angelos. However, more often than not it is a conspiracy charge that causes these egregious, cruel, and unusual punishments, as in the case of most of the prisoners serving life sentences for marijuana.
There are two essential things the public does not understand about conspiracy and in this case what you don’t know can definitely hurt you:
- In a conspiracy case, any one person can be held responsible for the actions of everyone in the group, regardless of how much or how little the individual actually had to do with the “crime.” This is how first time offender Craig Cesal, who did nothing more than repair the trucks that hauled marijuana, earned a life sentence, or how Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda, a day laborer paid to watch the store house, got his.
- No actual evidence is needed for a prosecutor to win a conspiracy conviction. All that is needed is the testimony of another person, usually trying to avoid prison time themselves, who says you did it. Many of the lifers, like Corvain Cooper, were never caught with any marijuana at all and were hundreds of miles away from where the “crime” took place.If you choose to exercise your sixth amendment right to a trial instead of taking a deal, and you lose, you will be punished far more severely than if you had taken the deal in the first place. Pretty much all of the lifers got their life sentences by taking it to trial instead of “cooperating against others, which did not stop others from “cooperating” against them.They also had to deal with over-zealous and corrupt prosecutors, judges, and in some cases, even defense attorneys. At every step of the process, the deck was unfairly stacked against them.
Question #2 Wow, how much marijuana were these prisoners selling to get a life sentence for marijuana, and if they were importing too much maybe it is justified?
No amount of marijuana, no matter how much, justifies a life sentence as long it was a nonviolent offense. I always find this question particularly irksome, for two reasons:
- First, for anyone who has ever used marijuana, it is incredibly hypocritical to criticize someone else for importing marijuana. For people to have had access to marijuana all these decades, somebody was always taking risks and importing “too much marijuana.”
- You cannot trust the government’s stats on the charges. Remember what I said about one person being responsible for the actions of the entire group, regardless of how much or how little they actually participated? According to the government, John Knock, a first-time offender sentenced to not one but TWO life sentences, was responsible for importing tons of marijuana into the United States as part of a multi-national drug smuggling ring, even though John’s involvement was limited to an acquaintance he had known years earlier.
The fact is, many of those serving life sentences for marijuana were never caught with any marijuana whatsoever, not even a seed! But someone else trying to avoid jail time said they were involved.
So how can a nonviolent offender get a life sentence for marijuana? It depends on the person and the circumstances. In some cases you have to organize a criminal enterprise that sells lots of marijuana. In other cases all it takes is being acquainted with the wrong people and making the mistake of believing in the so-called American system of justice and exercising your right to a trial by jury.
What can be done about it? The president must grant clemency, or these men will die in prison. While President Obama did in fact grant clemency to a number of marijuana lifers including James Tranmer, Craig Frazier, Billy Dekle, Charles Cundiff, and Paul Free, many, many more remain behind bars.
Take action! Contact the White House here and tell them to eliminate life sentences for cannabis!