“Nobody is doing prison time for marijuana anymore.” This ignorant, and often intentionally misleading, statement is a favorite of political pundits pushing anti-legalization agendas. Even when people come to realize there actually are people serving ridiculously long prison sentences for marijuana, they often jump to false assumptions and incorrect conclusions. It’s not entirely their fault. Some of the assumptions seem as credible as the gateway drug theory does to a prohibitionist. But they’re equally as wrong. So let’s get to the truth about pot Prisoners by exposing some dirty little secrets of the United States Department of Justice and bust through some often repeated myths about who is doing time for marijuana and why.
Myth 1: Nobody is doing serious time for marijuana
The truth is there are many individuals in the US serving sentences of LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE for nonviolent marijuana conspiracy offenses.
You read that correctly. Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. No drugs aside from cannabis were involved. Yet these men are destined to live their lives behind bars until the day they die.
Still, more prisoners are serving “de-facto life sentences,” meaning they will likely die before their release date, or be damn close to it. Marijuana lifers are among the prison populations in both state and federal facilities.
Myth 2: They used to give out long sentences for marijuana but that never happens anymore
The truth is people are still being sentenced to life for marijuana. Corvain Cooper, 37, received a federal Life Without Parole Sentence in 2014. US courts sentenced two Canadian importers to life earlier this year.
While it is true the majority of those serving life are senior citizens who have been incarcerated for decades, the practice still continues to this day.
Myth 3: You had to have multiple priors to get a long sentence for marijuana
The truth is there are first time offenders serving life sentences for marijuana. Among them is the world’s longest serving marijuana prisoner, 81-year-old Antonio Bascaro incarcerated for 37 years and counting. First-time offender John Knock, 69 was sentenced to not one but TWO life sentences for marijuana.
Myth 4: You had to sell tons and tons of marijuana to get a long sentence
The truth is you didn’t have to sell any marijuana to get a life sentence for it. Most marijuana lifers are behind bars because of conspiracy laws.
It takes very little to be part of a “conspiracy.” You just had to know someone involved or know something about the crime. According to the law, everyone involved in a conspiracy is equally responsible, regardless of how much or how little they actually participated.
This is how Craig Cesal, who never saw or touched cannabis, received Life Without Parole for repairing abandoned trucks that had previously hauled marijuana.
Myth 5: It takes a lot of evidence to put someone away for life
The truth is, it takes no actual evidence. The word of a cooperating informant or co-defendant, who is usually trying to avoid prison time themselves, constitutes the only evidence needed for a conspiracy conviction. That’s it. Nothing else.
Myth 6: The people serving long sentences for marijuana are drug kingpins
This myth ties directly in with numbers four and five. Sometimes drug kingpins do long sentences, but more often they don’t while their underlings do.
Remember, everyone is equally responsible in the eyes of the law, so what ends up happening is the true leader of the operation “cooperates” and turns on everyone else. Small time players who don’t feel they have done anything wrong take it to trial.
Prosecutors and judges far prefer deals to trials, so anyone who exercises their sixth amendment right to a trial and loses is sentenced far more severely than if they had a taken a deal.
Meanwhile, the cooperating witness, who provides the only evidence necessary for a conviction, goes free.
Myth 7: What state you’re in matters
One of the first questions I am asked about the prisoners I work with is, “What state was it?” My answer is, it does not matter.
Marijuana is federally illegal and we have people from all over serving life sentences including conservative states like Florida, along with legal and quasi-legal states like Washington and Colorado.
Don’t think for a minute the feds are leaving legal states alone, despite popular talking points. Washington medical marijuana provider Lance Gloor received a 10-year sentence in 2016.
Myth 8: Only minorities are serving serious time for marijuana
When it comes to sentencing prisoners to long sentences for marijuana, the justice department does not seem to discriminate.
So far a lot of the marijuana lifers we have identified happen to be white, but we also have Hispanics, blacks, at least one Asian, and one woman, and even a paraplegic in a wheelchair since childhood, serving life sentences for marijuana.
Myth 9: The President has pardoned all marijuana prisoners
To date, President Obama has commuted over 300 sentences, more than the previous seven Presidents combined, but not many for cannabis. Only six marijuana lifers so far have won a second chance through Presidential clemency, but many still wait for their chance.
Myth 10: Marijuana prisoners will be released when the laws change
Unlike many countries, the United States does not automatically release prisoners when laws change in their favor.
Legalizing or de-scheduling marijuana can open the pathway to the possibly of re-sentencing, but it will not automatically release those convicted of marijuana offenses.
For those serving life sentences, a sentence commutation from the President in federal cases, or the governor in state cases, remains their best hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheri Sicard is the founder and director of The Marijuana Lifer Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for prisoners serving Life Sentences for Marijuana. She is the author of 7 books, 2 on cannabis. Her blog is www.CannabisCheri.com.