Life for Pot is a website featuring stories of nonviolent marijuana offenders, like Beth’s brother, John Knock, who have been sentenced to Life without Parole.
As Beth describes on the Life for Pot website:
I started Life for Pot in December of 2008 and put up the site in 2009. The reason for this effort was because my brother had received life without parole as a first time nonviolent marijuana offender. Of course his family could not believe that the sentence could stand. We didn’t understand the criminal justice system. He had been indicted in 1994, imprisoned in 1996, tried in 2000.
When he went to trial in 2000, he was found guilty of three conspiracy charges and given a sentence of two life terms plus twenty.
We were stunned that a first time nonviolent marijuana offender could receive a sentence of this magnitude.
When John’s appeals were completed, I wanted to know if there were other nonviolent marijuana offenders who had received life without parole and I started the web site Life for Pot and began to gather their stories.
We are an organization that spotlights offenders who have received the sentence of Life without Parole for marijuana offenses. We do not believe that nonviolent marijuana offenders should receive sentences of Life for Pot.
Interview with Beth Curtis, Founder of Life for Pot:
Drug War Stories conducted the following email interview with Beth in October, 2016:
DWS: What motivated you to start researching other nonviolent marijuana offenders sentenced to life without parole after your brother’s appeals were completed?
BC: When my brother’s appeals were completed and every irregular issue was found to be not relevant or harmless we were stunned that this was the way our criminal justice worked. We were naïve and realized that most people did not know what happened when someone becomes a person of interest.
I still believed that John’s case was an aberration, but wanted to find out if there were others who had been charged, prosecuted and sentenced in the same way. I first determined what criteria I would use and settled on nonviolent marijuana offenders with no violent priors and no other substances who had been sentenced to life without parole. That’s what I set out to do and I became educated.
DWS: How did you learn about other marijuana lifers, and how did you gather their stories?
BC: I started looking on the internet for cases fitting those criteria in the 11th Circuit [federal cases originating in the states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia], as that circuit seemed to be where the longest sentences were given for nonviolent drug offenses. I found cases of many nonviolent marijuana offenders from other federal circuits who were designated kingpins who were sentenced much more leniently.
Eventually prisoners would give me the names of people they knew who fit the criteria. I would write to them and tell them I wanted to spotlight their cases. Eight years ago, it was necessary for me to make many contacts before they would trust me to tell their story. I believe that has changed as now many incarcerated people know that having their story told can help.
DWS: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
BC: Slowly it occurred to me that almost all the offenders who fit these criteria had two things in common. They had been charged with conspiracy and they had all elected to exercise their sixth amendment right to trial. The 11th Circuit had set the bar very high for my brother, but it was not an aberration – prosecutors are in charge of charging and conspiracy charges in drug cases result in unusually high sentences.
DWS: What do you think is the most important thing for the American people to know?
BC: This is an important thing for the public to understand. A conspiracy charge charges you with offenses that were done by many people who participated in the conspiracy. This conspiracy can be over many years and involve over 100 people.
There is not definitive evidence, but the charges are prosecuted using the testimony of defendants testifying for a plea, confidential informants testifying for money or forfeiture, and the testimony of agents. This is a very non-distinct charge. If the defendant goes to trial, that defendant is almost always found guilty. Their sentences are many times higher than their co-defendants who take a plea. They do not have any charges dropped, but have charges added. This is called the ‘trial penalty.’
There is no data base that will give you statistics for these narrow criteria of nonviolent marijuana offender, but we believe that in the federal system it’s a relatively small number. When people write about someone serving life for pot it is frequently not a life sentence but a de facto life sentence. If you broaden the criteria, however, that number will explode. I was fortunate to get attention for the cause.
Eventually other groups began to advocate for those serving life for pot. They built data bases also, but not necessarily using the same criteria. Having support from these groups and organizations is a god send. The prisoners on my site have benefitted greatly from this attention and support. Some of these groups raise money to send to individual inmates accounts, send them holiday and birthday cards, correspond with them, make outside contacts with families etc. For those who feel forgotten behind bars this brings new hope.
DWS: how many marijuana lifer stories have you covered on your website, Life for Pot, and what outreach do you do?
BC: In the 8 years that I have had the site, I don’t know how many marijuana lifer stories I have told. I change them and drop some when their status changes. I’ve been very gratified that about 8 of those I originally found have been released through clemency, compassionate release or a newly found irregularity that let them be released for time served.
I have always done quarterly mailings to Congress, advocacy groups, law schools, attorneys, etc. These are not intended to do anything more than call attention to the fact that there are nonviolent marijuana offenders serving life sentences and that these sentences do not fit the crime, are not fiscally responsible and are not just.
In 2012, Michael Kennedy and David Holland submitted a Group Petition for Clemency for the first five nonviolent marijuana offenders that I found that were over the age of 60 who had sentences of life without parole for marijuana. It was a concept, and was widely circulated. Three of those original five have been released. This petition gave Life for Pot a boost and got the attention of media.
DWS: How do you fund your site?
BC: I have never had funding for my activities. I have used my own funds for all activities. Many other groups have picked up the cause, and I am eternally grateful for that. Right now I am only focused on helping and facilitating those prisoners who need help with clemency petitions and questions. My web site is in shambles and in need of help.
In spite of the fact that the life for pot site needs so much help I started a new site. The site I just put up is: Life without Parole.
DWS: What keeps you movitated?
BC: I felt the need to do this because life without parole is not a sentence that should be given to any nonviolent offender. No other developed nation in the world imposes sentences of this magnitude for nonviolent offenses. I bleed for these people and the aura of pain that surrounds them and everyone who loves them. It feels like a beating pulse that will not be relieved until we embrace compassion and mercy. I know about it because I feel it.
There are so many special interests that are served by this harshness [and have] caused us to house so much of our treasure behind bars. There are the public employees whose jobs depend on people being investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. There are the vendors and private corporations who have contracts to provide all the tools and supplies for enforcement and incarceration. Unfortunately, our War on Drugs has also spanned a recovery industry that is tied to law enforcement rather than being a part of health care.
Congress needs to end our longest war – the war on drugs – and stop being the world’s largest jailer.
DWS: Describe your feelings and reactions when Obama’s issues commutations and your brother, John Knock, is not on the list?
BC: I really can’t say anything that would adequately convey the feelings I and other family members have when the list of commutations are granted. We are not alone. There are thousands of petitions waiting in the Pardon Attorney’s Office. These petitions are all connected to the loved one behind bars, their children, brothers, sisters and parents. The waiting is excruciating. When there is word that there have been commutations granted, Adrenalin begins to flow and your heart beat can be felt in your ears. When the list is finally posted you can hardly breathe or focus, but have to steady yourself so you will know if the one you love has been chosen. Feeling joy for those who won the prize is a given. Anyone with humanity and empathy in a similar situation knows what a gift has been granted to those on the list.
The hope begins again for mercy and compassion to be bestowed on those who have been passed over. It’s a special kind of agony.
“It’s a special kind of agony.”