America's Shameful Prohibition: Life Sentences For Marijuana

[Editor’s note: Kellen’s brief review of a new organization dedicated to bringing attention to the numerous life sentences in America for cannabis-only related offenses is apropos as a 35-year-old father of a young child was sentenced in Louisiana Thursday for life in a cannabis possession case (the life sentence was triggered by the state’s controversial ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mandatory minimum sentences).
Regrettably, and discernibly, the greater south of the United States is the hotbed for these kind of insanely long prison sentences for supposedly criminal acts that many citizens in fact no longer believe are crimes whatsoever.
A new interactive map from the Sentencing Project aptly demonstrates that deep southern states like Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas have the highest prison incarceration rates not only in America, but the world.]

By Kellen Russoniello, George Washington Law School student, NORML legal intern
To many of us, the idea of anyone spending life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense is absolutely ridiculous. Yet with the recent passage of a bill in the Oklahoma State Legislature making the manufacture of hash punishable by life imprisonment, it is clear that life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenders do exist.  In fact, a new website is drawing attention to this issue and has identified several people who are currently serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses. focuses on finding individuals who have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for federal nonviolent marijuana only offenses.  Beth Curtis, the founder of the website, has identified eight people, each with a unique background and story of how they came to spend the rest of their lives in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
Beth is very familiar with the subject: the first individual listed is John Knock, her brother. Since 2000, John has been serving two life sentences plus twenty years for his connection to a conspiracy to import multiple tons of marijuana and hashish from Pakistan and Lebanon into the United States and Canada, a sentence that Beth believes is the harshest ever for nonviolent marijuana crimes. When she talked to others about the severity of her brother’s sentence, she realized that people believed that nonviolent marijuana offenders could not receive such draconian sentences.
Despite having retired and living in Hawaii when law enforcement came knocking on John’s door he was extradited to Florida—a state that he’d never lived in or committed a crime. Instead, John was drawn into a sting operation because of his contacts with a San Francisco area smuggler who had been indicted. However, John was never seen by law enforcement committing any of the crimes he was convicted of, he was never found in possession of marijuana, and his prosecution rested only upon the testimony of informants. Criminal defense lawyers describe his as a ‘dry case’, and the full story is available at and
But how extraordinary is this sentence? Life for Pot lists some of the most famous drug kingpins and the sentences that they received, and it seems that John’s sentence was given special treatment. For example, “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the preeminent crack dealer of the Los Angeles area during the 1980s and early 90s was sentenced to life in 1996. His sentence was subsequently reduced to 20 years, and he was released in 2009. Manuel Felipe Salazar-Espinosa, deemed by the DEA to be one of the world’s most significant drug kingpins making up to $14 million in a week, was given 30 years for conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and money laundering.
It is clear that there are differences in the sentencing of these individuals. Life for Pot seeks to identify and make others aware of these discrepancies. Beth notes that the creation of mandatory minimums at the federal level has resulted in the increase in power of the prosecutor to decide the sentence by choosing which charges to pursue. She specifically points out that the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, has given 6 of the 8 life sentences identified for nonviolent marijuana only offenses.
So where does this effort go from here? Although Beth has already received some feedback from politicians, attorneys, activists, and journalists, she hopes to start an organization focused on this issue soon. In order to do this, she explains that she will need advisers to help out, as well as a strong coalition. The roots of this coalition have already begun to take hold, with organizations like the November Coalition, Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums providing support, as well as media attention from a Columbia, Missouri NPR affiliate and High Times Magazine.
Beth would also like to broaden the focus by included those serving de facto life sentences for nonviolent marijuana only offenses, including where older individuals are sentenced to long sentences (e.g., a 50 year old sentenced to 20 years).
State sentences are another area that Beth would like to examine. Sentence reform efforts can be very successful at the state level. In order to do this, however, more resources must be available.
A group petition for clemency is also in the works for those prisoners that have been identified as part of this effort.
“The solution is political,” Beth declared. Legislative action is the best way to address the problem of egregious sentencing disparities. An organization focused on this issue would therefore be heavily focused on reaching legislators. So far, Life for Pot has sent out several cards and letters to federal congressmen and agencies. Beth also noted that advocacy efforts for the legalization of marijuana at the national level must be bolstered.
In these times where some jurisdictions are locking up nonviolent marijuana offenders for life, it is good to hear that someone is bringing the inconsistency and irrationality of these practices to light.
If you know someone that is currently serving a federal life sentence without parole for a nonviolent marijuana only offense, or would be able to assist Beth in her efforts, please contact her at

68 thoughts

  1. At this point, after your third strike you should know it’s time to pack it in. I’m all for legalization but importing multiple tons you know you’re the penalty is gonna be harsh. If it was tobacco or alcohol he would have gotten ~5 years just for the smuggling. I think that the giant smuggling and subsequent cartel style distribution is what is keeping legalization at bay.

  2. This is an outrage. That poor man and so many like him. How could my country my sweet America destroy someones life and the lives of their family without even blinking an eye for something so minimal as marijuana?

  3. Before the United States Civil War 1861-1865, the demand for cotton made the south rich.
    Could it be that certain politicians does not want that to happen again with the demand for cannabis?
    Yep, I’m a southerner.

  4. Bartee Genesis, Lake/Tn Colony
    I’ve said it before – and – I’ll say it again – and – again – and – again. These prohibs are absolutely out of their fucking minds. They belong in a mental institution – not government. But then again – it sure seems like just one more tick in the DOJ’s plan to fill the jails they can’t build fast enough.
    O.K. – brethren in the South – do your thing. Texas did it – so can you. You have 3141 Genesist Colonies in support of your objective – to reclaim your country.

  5. The U.S. government can see the money in it for buying arms to arm rebels and they can see the benefit in it to continue to supply prison-slaves, yet they can’t see the many benefits in Cannabis to provide jobs and help this country in its present sorry economic state, but we continue to trust these people to lead and direct this country… sad, very sad!

  6. Who is surprised at the stupidity of the south? Anybody? No… didn’t think so. Where are the states that will be most difficult to reform?
    Every where south of Virginia. Everywhere west of Ohio but east of Colorado.
    Yes, Virginia– Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the rest of the hillbillies.
    They are places where the religious right rules with an iron hand– are you surprised at their resistance to us? We have two areas to focus on: the West Coast and the Atlantic Northeast (from Maine to Maryland).

  7. Are you a idiot Matt, they are going to jail FOR LIFE because of a non-violent act. This has to be the most unpatriotic thing this government has ever done, this injustice needs to end now. Who cares if he is importing tons, I would. Not to sell to people but to keep for my own to save money, this governments making everyone 40 grand per person incarcerated, at 858,408 people in 2009 for marijuana arrrest. The whole public is paying 34,336,320,000 just for 2009.
    The marijuana laws are the best con scheme America has ever seen, but not taken into light due to fear mongering politicians who say “If your buying marijuana, your helping al-Qaeda”.
    When will those against us realize, we aren’t trying to ruin their perfect society, but were trying to keep money in the right hands.
    Any politic who supports marijuana prohibition is actually doing money laundering due to them gaining money from the prosecution of non-violent crimes. When it’s legalized we need a council, to investigate how much they have been laundering, then they will pay that money towards the debt that they have been expanding on.

  8. absolute power corrupts absolutely,politicians and lawyers in government are just following their own agenda’s. what used to be the Constitution is now big prison, big oil, big alchol, big tobacco, all using their influences to enslave the slaves to big government. what ever happened to one man, one vote? when does what the people vote for matter anymore? by ballot initiative referendums, for complete legalization of all cannabis, or spend years and billions of your tax dollars while lawyers and politicians play adversarial process bureaucracy. that’s the only answer. it’s the end of the matter.

  9. This is such a step backwards! It is really disheartening to see that law makers in OK would even consider this? Really what’s the purpose! Punish the sick? Geez …

  10. Presidential candidate Ron Paul, a leading GOP hopeful, will pardon these for-life marijuana offenders. He told Adam, on RT’s Adam vs the Man show. So, it will be much easier to get the greatest American in our history elected, Ron Paul, then get the criminals of our criminal injustice system to admit they were wrong, and set these folks free. Ron Paul 2012!

  11. It’s nothing short of institutionalized racism as a replacement for slavery with cheap prison labor, as statistics indicate there are more people of color in prison and Caucasians.
    Pharoah did not listen to the pleas to let the people go, either. Apparently, the South not suffered enough to end this injustice.
    This is just plain wrong, for all the tobacco the South produces and exports. Nicotine is a drug!

  12. I live in Mississippi and there are a LOT of stupid sheeple here.Who believe whatever the go’ment tells them to believe, this will be the last place for reform.
    which is why I am tryin to get the hell out!

  13. Make those states mentioned landfills or give the war mongers something to invade and use them for artillery practice.

  14. 2. Igor
    “Only an un-american would consider committing such an atrocity against their own countrymen. Treason has no honor, and its master has no country.

  15. Prison for Life, it is unthinkable that a human being, a man and a women are beset by the army of special agents and experts ready to testify in the courts of our Land.
    Welcome to the drug war, some place in the twilight zone, which sucks your last sheckle your last nickel is paying for this modern holocaust.
    I speak of unimaginable horror unspeakable disgrace,

  16. Crimes against humanity Genocide Treason against the Republic. How much more evidence do we need to say Stop?
    Endocannabinoid system One of the great medical discoveres Huh Ain’t that something.

  17. im sorry to hear this, it makes me very sad. I live in alabama and i know all too well how harsh the punishments can be. I was arrested years ago for possession of a pipe and not even enough pot to make one bowl. I had 1 year probation, 200 hours of community service and it cost me over $2000 in fines, court costs, mandatory drug classes, drug tests and the cost for a lawyer. The judge did everything but put me in jail, it ruined my life for a long while but I was lucky to have gotten youthful affender and had it taken off my record when i completed probation. Even though it was a severe punishment at the time, i still consider myself lucky. It could have been worse and not as many people have it as lucky as i did. Its time to do without these ridiculous laws! For the sake of our future and well being. If there truely is a crime being committed, its the crime of unjustice being dealt to our own people by unjust laws. THE PEOPLE ARE SPEAKING BUT NO ONE WILL HEAR US!

  18. somehow this is backwards, we should be throwing the prohibitionists in prison. But not for life, just till they say “uncle”, and “ok, you win.”

  19. God is the biggest dealer hands down, in fact he made marijuana. So unless you have a set of kuffs in his size and assuming you’ve got the balls to put them on him, you have’nt the right or the capabilities to honorably judge anyone. What a lame desperate attack on WE THE PEOPLE! You have yet to know how big a crowd or world of cannibis is. I think that since you are so hung up on arresting your own fellow cannibis American smokers that you should pay the bill not us.

  20. Upholding the Cause of Justice and Humanity.
    God gets credit for the achievements of man – and – evil gets credit for man’s sins. What does it profit man that he gain the world but lose his soul?
    The thing that sets off bells and alarms in my head are – prohibs honestly believe that We the People are going to sing their praises. How delusional! This is proof positive just how much they need immediate professional help.
    Maybe we have to break up to make up. It’s for damn sure we can’t resolve this issue under the present circumstances and conditions. All this bullshit – is just that – bullshit. There’s no reception. First and most importantly – “Manna is a Sacrament [Genesis I:29,30,31].” Second – “Manna is a medicine [always has been – always will be].” Last – “A rose by any other name – is still a rose.”

  21. 7. Matt
    “Religious right rules with iron hand.” Genesis I:29,30,31.
    That’s interesting – because – Genesists feel exactly the same way – and – we are fighting to regain that religious right – “The right to our Faith – and – our Sacrament – through devotion to God.” The Genesist Faith has a religious iron hand [right or left]. You must read the Scriptures to understand it. The truth is in the Scriptures – truth be to God. Therefore – because the truth is found in both the Scriptures and the Science – it should [then] also be found in the Law of the Land.
    Ya’ll take the census of the “South” – determine how many believe in God, and who honors our Sacrament – “That’s your number – right chair!” Ya’ll take all the counties – in all of the southern states – “That’s how many Genesist Colonies there are in the “South” [there’s 3141 Colonies in the United States]. Because Genesis is a “Faith” within [any] monotheistic religion [Protestants, Catholics, Jews, or Ism] – it’s universal – therefore – having a protectable universal right to the free exercise of religion. and its Sacraments.

  22. Somebody asked me , what side are you on? Well seeing that both sides are in the STONE AGE i will stick to the green side. Toke on!!! and stay stoned. This side is best, but we already knew that. What side are YOU on ? Does anyone really have to ask?

  23. What is keeping us from getting over prohibition? Why is it so hard for everyone to accept the truth about prohibition? There should be a door to door poll asking people what punishments should be enforced on those who choose to smoke ganja, and a national vote on legalizing marijuana! If the people want to vote to repeal these horrible laws, then why the hell wont our government give us that oppurtunity? it is our natural right to make our opinions known to our government

  24. @nick “Free Cannabis” … I agree … people need to stop acting like relaxing the laws are doing everyone a favor. Funny how i found a list of marijuana companies you can invest in on yet buying some actual marijuana could send you to jail for life

  25. I wonder where the pressure is coming from? Hope and change was promised, Holder was told to lay off med mar, said it was a very low priority. President is often called most powerful position of authority in the free world. Hype? Seems like some entity with an awful lot of clout is pulling the strings here. Maybe it’s just a case of another pragmatic, opportunistic, lying politician with an election looming…. By the way, where exactly is the “free world”?

  26. 37. Eric
    Look down Eric – A “free world” is the ground you’re standing on – and – it will follow you wherever you go. It’s outside forces that penetrate your circle and fuck up your “free world.” “It’s up to you” – like it is all free individuals – to protect your freedom and its liberties. A “free world” is is your mind.

  27. If all of the Reports, alone, that haven been commissioned by the government, were placed on the table and opened for examination – prohibs would run like rats fleeing a sinking ship. They simply can’t deny scientific conclusion – or defend against it. The most vital action we can take is to put an end to the DOJ’s “great arrogance” and top down control.
    We also need an “Internal Revolution” within our souls – Tabula Rasa [clean slate]. We need to disregard everything we’ve heard or been told – and – look only at the scientific and religious evidence on the table. We need to accept every shred of scientific research, from every source of science. Cannabis – “Is what it is” – what it scientifically is. It is only logical that government “prove their claim” as to how dangerous cannabis is – because – our data differs so greatly – scientific conclusion will define the liar and the fraud – “once and for all.”

  28. What’s worse than “Life for Pot”, how death of and innocent?
    Just select “Death of an Innocent” and you will get 45 results and that is just the last 25 years. These 45 were innocent, but now are casualties of the drug war.
    Add in non-violent offenders (AKA Guilty of Drug charges, but no weapon) and you get 71. That’s 2.84 deaths per year of ether innocent or non-violent offenders.
    BTW, How many officers have we had killed or wounded? 31.
    Over 100 individuals have lost their life in this War. (Not including officers/civilians killed by the Mexican cartels)

  29. Hey, does anybody know what a (decision) is ? How about the right one? There, now that was’nt so hard, was it ? Roll ’em when ya get’ em.

  30. This has to end! It started with marijuana now their trying to control what people grow period! Can you imagine getting busted for having a vegetable garden!?

  31. 42. Roger
    Monsanto and the government are saying – “no more organic seed.” This is so Monsanto can monopolize the GMO seed. Hemp is an organic seed. We are now living in a world where the big fish eat the little fish. There’s nothing humane or civilized in what government is doing – nothing whatsoever. May God have mercy on their miserable souls – what’s left of their soul – if any.

  32. Who, do you suppose, are those ill-informed Soles who oppose Legalization of Marijuana? Do our Legislators realize that Marijuana is not Addictive, or Harmful? Answer: People with a Financial Self Interest are duping our Legislators about Marijuana!
    Holy Smokes! Pat Robertson endorses Legalization of Marijuana!
    See for yourself:
    Marijuana Production, and Sales in California, is well over $14Billion per year! Legalization of Marijuana would generate well over $2Billion of Tax Revenue, in California alone, not including the Legalization of Millions of Jobs, and the Business Profits of Liquor Stores! Legalizing these existing Businesses and wage earners would bring thousands of jobs into the income tax base of California, and the IRS!
    Legalization of Marijuana would curtail the existing illegal Production, and Sales of Marijuana, by drug pushers.
    Anything can be abused. However, Legalization of Marijuana would surely decrease the abuse of this substance. Taking Marijuana off of the Illegal Drug Regulations, of Federal Law, would allow improved control, of Marijuana, by legal Businesses, as Alcohol is now controlled, and this would allow The DEA and the States Drug enforcement forces to focus on Hard Drug control
    Illegal Drug Pushers will continue to have, and exploit, the Marijuana production and Sales, in the U.S.A., until the Federal Law is changed to Legalize Marijuana. Today Illegal Drug Pushers are selling Marijuana to Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime, for Chump Change!
    Marijuana is clearly the #1 Cash Crop in the U.S.A… And just “Willy Nelly” leaving this Huge Cash Crop to the Illegal Drug Pusher is purely a misappropriation of resources in this Country! I believe that the majority of the “Bleeding Hart”, “Goody Goody”, “little Two-Shoes”, opposed to Legalization of Marijuana are actually indirectly benefiting from their connections to the Illegal Production, and Sale of Marijuana; including both Law Enforcement, and those who Illegally Grow, and the Drug Pushers who sell their various Drugs.
    *If a person is bent on doing the wrong thing, they do not have to be a Genius to find any number of alternatives of wrong doing.
    We are currently spending about $86,000.00 per year, on each of the thousands, of Incarcerated prisoners who were convicted for growing, selling, using Marijuana. Do we really want to waste our Tax Revenues Busting, Prosecuting, and incarcerating those who use Marijuana?
    Our Prisons are totally over capacity, and it is a shame that many of these people in Prison were not convicted of violent crimes, but for growing, selling, or using Marijuana. Let’s get Incarceration priorities under control!

  33. The federal govt will never be an option concerning marijuana legalization because it is an individual choice and their intention on being narrow sighteded and closed minded knows no bounds. Like a gnat at a barbeque!

  34. when i was young i was told i live in the land of the i get older it becomes more apperent that this was a lie.we as people should come together and be able to agree that it is a discrace to send a person to prison for pot.if this is the free that my parents spoke of i guess im goen to half to move to canada.

  35. # 22 ? , i paid 100 bucks for a pot club card , got stopped by the local sheriff, pulled out my card , it was like a ‘crusifix! sherriff backed off , said you can keep that 1/2 oz , push your moped home , have a nice day !!!! BEST 100 bucks ever did spend , come to california!!!

  36. With so many elected officials openly admitting to the use of marijuana, it seems unbelievable that even the traffickers of this substance would be serving life in prison.
    I am, in no way, suggesting that the dealers get off “scot free”, but punishment is supposed to fit the crime.
    NO NON-VIOLENT offense deserves life in Prison.
    How can we justify the early release of child molesters, while we incarcerate those who smuggled pot into the Country for life?
    How do we release murderers, people who have literally stolen LIVES, but continue to let those guilty of a victimless crime, remain in prison until death?
    These early releases of violent offenders put the public safety at risk, but the non-violent being incarcerated for life, only serve to put a greater strain on the economy.

  37. If you think about how our system of Justice has been handling crimes, involving drugs, you will notice that there seems to be no lines drawn. Drug Dealer..Drug User…one brush paints all offenses. I hear DRUGS, I think more along the lines of cocaine, heroine, meth, pills. I think of cartels dealing in huge quantities of highly addictive and dangerous substances that truly,should be kept out of reach.
    Why are the people involved with killer drugs, being set free from prisons, sooner than the people who are involved with Marijuana?
    Sex offenders, listed in registries, have categories to alert communities of their danger level. Why any convicted rapist of children is ever out of prison, makes me question what are the values within our Courts. Violent rape against women, or men? These offenders are released before people convicted of marijuana related crimes? Is this sane?
    When we have seen wealthy, violent traffickers of heroine…traffickers of cocaine, leave prison while those who trafficked Marijuana are rotting in jails, for life.
    Are we being told that Marijuana is the worst of the Drugs, and therefore, worthy of the harshest punishment? OR, are we being SHOWN that pot related offenders are are the most docile, the least able to “pay off”, and are being used as the Poster Children, for a War On Drugs?
    So far, no Politician, Judge or Prosecutor has answered this question.

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