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Pot Prisoners: Meet Five Victims of the War on Drugs

Marijuana is becoming less stigmatized, but there are still plenty of people serving decades – even life – on weed-related charges

pot prisoners marijuana cannabis clemency

Mel Evans/AP

In the summer of 1986, Eric Sterling, a young Congressional staffer serving on the House Subcommittee on Crime, was told to come up with a plan to toughen up America’s drug laws. “The issue of drugs and crime was really being hyped by the Reagan administration and the news media,” says Sterling. “They were all looking at this, saying, ‘We need to crack down.'”

The “tough-on-crime” frenzy that ensued would transform America. In their rush to do something about drugs, lawmakers reshaped the U.S. criminal justice system, cementing harsh mandatory minimum sentences. But as Sterling remembers it, back in 1986, most lawmakers were uninformed about what they were doing and unaware of the impact it would have on thousands of lives.

When Ronald Reagan signed the The Anti-Drug Abuse Act that October, he promised nothing short of a “drug-free generation.” At the signing, Reagan told the audience of athletes and schoolchildren that addicts would get the support they needed to “live right” and that America’s jails would not fill up with drug users. Yet mandatory minimums trigger an automatic enhanced sentence based on relatively arbitrary amounts of drugs. They rob judges of discretion; while empowering prosecutors to threaten decades-long sentences, even life without parole. In short, America’s jails filled up – and quick. 

“The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was an emotional reaction and not a rational one, so it’s not surprising that its effects have not been what supporters claimed,” says Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It was done to reduce crime and drug use, but drug use is the same today. In fact, drugs are even cheaper, easier to get. So it’s done nothing in that regard.” In 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which introduced the three-strikes rule, mandating life without parole for three or more convictions for federal violent felonies or drug trafficking. Many states followed suit, passing three-strikes and habitual offender laws.

Under those conditions, there’s not much mystery why, despite Reagan’s promise to the contrary, America is now the number-one jailer in the world. In 2015, there were an estimated 2,173,800 Americans in local jails, state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice. And even though pot is now legal at the state level in many parts of the country, roughly one in eight federal prisoners are serving time for marijuana offenses.

Unlike a majority of Americans, who think marijuana should be legal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly broadcast his antipathy to legalization. He’s also opposed to broader reforms that would help rectify the criminal justice excesses of the past few decades.

In the past year, he’s cited the current opioid epidemic as a reason to scale back the legalization of pot.

But Eric Sterling, who’s seen first-hand how a drug panic can lead to knee-jerk policy with unpredictably cruel outcomes, thinks there’s a better way to address addiction. “Our goal should be to save the lives of drug users,” he says. “It’s not about putting more people in prison.”

Mark Osler, whose time as a prosecutor in 1990s Detroit turned him into a criminal justice reformer, says he’s sensed discomfort with Sessions’ approach, even among some Republicans in Washington. “It’s going back to 1982,” he says. And by now we should know that putting people in prison for selling drugs does not end drug use.

“People still get pot!” Osler says. “Any of those marijuana lifers, whoever they were supplying, the next week those people were getting pot from somewhere else. That’s what makes it really sad.”

In 2017, some Americans can walk into a local dispensary and buy marijuana – or even grow it in their own home – without fear of consequences. Millionaire hedge funders have gotten into the legal weed game. Yet other Americans are still in prison for decades for growing or selling the same, or far smaller, amounts of pot.

In the U.S. criminal justice system, people still get locked up for pot even as others profit from it; it’s not an easy contradiction to justify. 

marijuana pot prisoners crystal munoz

Courtesy of CAN-DO Clemency

Crystal Munoz

Conviction: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1000 kilograms of marijuana.
Sentence: 18 years
Facility: FMC Carswell, a federal facility in Ft. Worth, Texas 

Crystal Munoz, a 38-year-old Navajo mother of two young girls, was sentenced to almost two decades for drawing a map of a road in Big Bend National Park on a piece of notebook paper – a favor, she says, for some friends. These friends would end up using that map to circumvent a drug checkpoint in a large marijuana trafficking operation. Later, they testified against her hoping for more lenient sentences. It’s not clear if they succeeded, but Munoz is nine years into an 18 year sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms or more of marijuana.

That’s a lot of pot. But she maintains that any role she might have played in the operation was minimal. “The map was on a peice of notebook paper and with arrows/lines for the road. It was not very sophisiticated [sic],” she writes from Carswell, a minimum-security women’s prison. 

Despite her allegedly small role, she faced a very long sentence. That’s because when a person is charged with conspiracy, all the government has to do to hook a defendant for all the drugs sold is to have witnesses testify against them. They don’t ever have to have been caught with drugs.

“That’s where you get the ‘drugless’ drug cases,’ where there’s no drugs in evidence,” Eric Sterling, the former congressional staffer who helped draft mandatory minimums back in the 1980s, says. In theory, this is meant to take down kingpins, who are less likely to get caught with drugs on them than lower-level dealers. But the higher up someone is in an operation, the more information they can trade for reduced sentences. Meanwhile, mid-level people might not be too eager to testify against the real ringleader, especially if they’re violent. “I wouldn’t want to identify the kingpin because what if he finds out I ratted him out and kills my family?,’ says Sterling. “So I make up a story, or help the government entrap someone.”

At first Munoz had considered pleading guilty, which would have triggered a 10-year mandatory minimum. But her lawyer cautioned that she could also get 30-to-life, and if she pled guilty she’d lose her right to appeal. So she took her chances at trial, and lost.

Pregnant during her trial, she delivered her daughter as a federal prisoner. “I remember the day I gave birth to her,” she writes. “I knew I would have to leave when my hospital stay was up. I did not sleep, I stayed up the whole time holding her … She was abandoned by her momma, but not by my will. One day I was just gone.”

When Crystal was brought back to the holding facility she cried and screamed until an officer demanded she calm down. “I cried quietly after that moment. I stayed crying for days in my cell.”

As Broadly reported in January, Munoz was one of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders hoping to have their sentences commuted before President Obama left office as part of his clemency initiative – her husband Ricky thought the former president might be sympathetic because he has two daughters of his own.

Although Obama granted 1,715 commutations, most for nonviolent drug offenders, Munoz wasn’t one of them.

For a while, Ricky was too scared to tell the kids that Crystal had been denied. “When they found out they were just in shock. They really believed she would get out,” he says. “They were so excited.”

Crystal can’t fathom why people get put in prison for nonviolent crimes.

“Hundreds of people I have encountered over the years, beautiful people, who made a mistake, some who have been imprisoned for 2 decades and will die imprisoned, for their part in a drug conspiracy,” she says. “It’s hard, and I try to make sense of it all, but there came a point when I just stopped trying to understand. You can’t.” 

andy cox pot prisoner

Courtesy of Andy Cox

Andy Cox

Conviction: conspiracy to manufacture and attempt to manufacture marijuana in and around the Chattahoochee National Forest
Sentence: Life without parole
Prison: United States Penitentiary, a federal facility in Pollock, Louisiana

It started with an irate neighbor, who called the National Forest Service to complain about the deep tracks of an all-terrain vehicle crossing their land and running into Cattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. The caller also told agents they’d seen “strange plants.” NFS agents who went to investigate found dead and dying plants on forest land. Hiking further up to Cox’s dad’s house, they found more plants in trays.

In the spring of 2004, 41-year-old Andy Cox and three other men had planted cannabis seedlings in the forest and on the property of Cox’s father, Harry Cox. Andy, a former firefighter and small business owner, says the plan was to “grow some really good buds” and “to sell and smoke the weed after harvesting.” (Cox also contends that another man actually ran the operation).

Because the operation involved more than one person, Cox and the other men were indicted in a conspiracy to manufacture and attempt to manufacture marijuana. When he realized he might have to go to prison for five to 10 years, he ran away instead of facing the charges. While in hiding, he realized that the sentence awaiting him if he were ever caught was life without parole.

He lived underground for three years. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” he writes from Pollock, Louisiana. “Being a fugitive is very lonely. The Holidays were the worst… I never contacted any of my family. I missed my children so, so much.” Captured in 2008, he decided to take his case to trial. It was a risky move – defendants who exercise their right to trial are far more likely to get long sentences – and it ended in disaster.

Cox was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2009, the same year Barack Obama – who’d freely admitted to smoking marijuana – started his presidency. Even though it was a nonviolent crime, U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias boasted about locking him up for life. “He will have no more chances to poison our communities with illegal drugs, and his sentence should send a message that our national forests are not a safe haven for crime,” Nahmias declared in an official press release.

Almost a decade later, as legal pot has swept the country, it’s even harder for Cox to make sense of his life sentence. “It is crazy that in eight states they are growing so much more marijuana that I have ever been accused of,” Cox says. He’d hoped to get clemency from President Obama, but his petition was denied. “There was no violence or victims in my case, except for my family,” Cox says. “I have let them down, and that is not me.” Cox has three kids – the youngest, who was five when he left, just graduated high school.

Cox is still working on overturning his sentence, but also accepts the harsh reality. “I do see where I could very well die in prison,” he writes. 

patricia albright pot prisoners

Courtesy of Patricia Albright

Patricia Albright

Conviction: Conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, manufacturing marijuana, and structuring currency transactions to evade federal reporting requirements
Sentence: Five and a half years
Facility: Federal Correctional Institution Dublin in California

Patricia Albright learned how to use pot as medicine under the worst imaginable circumstances: her son, Trevor, then age 8, was dying of cancer. By that point, he’d lost both eyes to the retinoblastoma he’d been diagnosed with at 16 months old.

“He did well with it at first but as time went on he became listless and barely conscious and when he was, the pain was so severe he would be screaming for help,” Patricia writes from prison. “If we gave him more morphine we would have killed him.” Then, his oncologist suggested medical marijuana – teaching Patricia how to make butters and tinctures – and it appeared to help ease his pain.

“It was so wonderful to see him laugh, eat his favorite foods, listen to music, ‘watch’ Mr. Rogers (his favorite) … enjoy visitors and ultimately have the chance to read to his new baby sister in braille,” she writes. She gave birth to his sister 17 days before he passed away in 1984. On the morning of his death, she remembers, Patricia gave him permission to die. “I told him that time in Heaven was different than time on earth and that his mommy would be right behind him.”

After her son’s death, she continued to make marijuana products for people suffering from a host of painful conditions. “I gave away medicine to AIDS, cancer, heart, dialysis, MS, cerebral palsy and epileptic patients,” she says. She herself had a prescription for medical marijuana she used to treat the anxiety and PTSD she experienced after the trauma of taking care of her dying child, and she and her son Jordan ran a medical pot collective with eight other people. California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. In keeping with the guidelines for legal growers, Albright and all the other growers had physician-issued prescriptions.

In September of 2010, the collective got a visit from a man they suspected to be a cop. They told him to get off their property. As it turned out, he was an undercover agent from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. Later that month, a task force made up of local, state and federal officials executed a search warrant on the property.

Albright and her son Jordan were indicted for pot sold between 2008 and 2010, in addition to gun charges for the shotgun she says she kept to ward off mountain lions and bears.

Offered a plea deal of four years in prison for her, and one year of home supervision for her son, Albright refused, claiming that she’d done nothing wrong or illegal. But that didn’t matter in federal court. “I have learned since my indictment that a medical marijuana defense is not allowed in most federal courts,” she wrote in 2013. “Neither is the fact that we were totally legal and compliant with state and county laws.”

At the time, she asked the Obama administration for help. “I believe in you … we are not criminals,” she wrote in a letter. Faced with 20 years and prison time for her son, she took a guilty plea and got five and a half years. Her son got prison time as well. “I was pretty pissed off when Jordan and I were sent to prison. We took such great care to make sure we met the criteria for a completely State of California and El Dorado County legal collective, she says. “Apparently that does not matter to the feds.”

Federally, pot is still a Schedule I drug, which means it’s not actually legal anywhere in the U.S., giving the federal government the authority to raid marijuana facilities, even in places that have legalized at the state level. Amy Povah, the head of CAN-DO for clemency says her case is a perfect example countering Sessions’ Department of Justice line on pot.

“Patricia’s case establishes that the public cannot trust the current propaganda coming from Jeff Sessions’ Dept of Justice that claims ‘all drug cases are inherently violent’ and that there are ‘no low level’ drug offenders in federal prison.” Povah says.

Albright believes she was targeted so the government could seize her property through asset forfeiture. “The feds filed forfeiture on my home and land 10+ acres in the woods above Nevada County where I raised my two children without any child support and fought like hell to keep and maintain.’ In July, Attorney General Sessions said he would expand civic asset forfeiture.

Patricia doesn’t think she should be in prison, given the high cost to taxpayers.

“The U.S. makes up 5% of the world population but we have 25% of the prisoners. Shame on them,” she writes. “Seriously screwed up when you think of what politicians that get away with.” 

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