Life in Prison for Pot? As Laws Ease, Some Remain Behind Bars

Post Date: March 11, 2014

(CBS News) — It’s a fact that marijuana is becoming more widely accepted in the United States. Colorado and Washington State have already approved the drug for recreational use and a total of 20 states have approved it for medicinal use. A CBS News Poll conducted in January found fifty-one percent of Americans think the use of marijuana should be completely legal. Yet there are individuals still serving life in prison without parole for non-violent marijuana-related offenses.

“There’s no logic to it,” Beth Curtis, whose brother John Knock is serving two life terms plus twenty years for three marijuana-related conspiracy charges, told CBS News’ Crimesider. “It’s a cruel kind of conflict.”

Knock, now 67, was indicted in 1994 in the Northern District of Florida on charges of conspiracy to money launder and conspiring to import and distribute marijuana as part of a reverse sting. He was sentenced in 2000 following a trial. Knock was a first time offender with no history of violence or drug abuse, according to Curtis, who started the website in 2010 to bring attention to her brother’s case and identify similar cases.

While Curtis says she doesn’t know an exact number of prisoners who are serving life without parole or de-facto life sentences for non-violent marijuana-related crimes, she lists 17 on her website and says she has a stack of others she is currently working to vet.

Knock has exhausted his right to appeal and Curtis says she is trying to file for clemency on behalf of her brother, but says they don’t have a lot of resources to pay for an attorney.

In 2012, New York-based attorney Michael Kennedy filed a group petition for clemency on behalf of Knock and four other men serving life in prison for non-violent marijuana-related crimes. It was dismissed.

“I think that clemency would definitely be a positive step in the right direction in recognizing that we should not be enforcing these harsh punishments [for non-violent marijuana-related crimes],” Morgan Fox, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Crimesider. “We’ve seen a lot of progress in legal change [when it comes to marijuana], but not too much in clemency.”

“[Marijuana] is a Schedule I drug which puts it right up there with heroin and there’s no logic to it,” Curtis told Crimesider.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines Schedule I drugs as “the most dangerous drugs.”

Rusty Payne, a spokesperson for the DEA, told Crimesider that since the Federal Drug Administration has not recognized smoked marijuana as medicine – and since Congress hasn’t changed the law – the drug agency is not obligated to alter its Schedule I ranking of marijuana.

A budget proposal submitted by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says his state’s legal cannabis industry will bring in $133.6 million in taxes and revenues for fiscal year 2014-15. And in Washington State, an official forecast expects cannabis-related sales taxes, along with excise and licensing fees, to bring the state nearly $190 million in revenue between 2015 and 2019.

“It seems like such a hypocritical thing to have people serving life without parole for the same product that people are now scrambling around to make business on,” John Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis, told Crimesider. Read more