John Knock: Two Life Sentences for Marijuana - FAMM

John Knock: Two Life Sentences for Marijuana

John Knock is in prison for marijuana charges for a term of two life sentences plus 20 years. This story is from his sister, Beth Curtis. From day one, Beth has been John’s strongest supporter. She will never stop telling his story and working to change the unfair laws that keep him and others behind bars. UPDATE: John was granted executive clemency in January 2021.


When my brother John was found guilty and sentenced to two mandatory life sentences plus 20 years for marijuana, my sister and I were in the courtroom with our 87-year-old mother, Bijou. Bijou would never see her youngest child free again. She was slumped over, wearing sunglasses so no one would see her cry. She was proud, brave, and bewildered about the harshness of the sentence that John received.

John grew up in a small Midwestern town, the youngest of four children. Our father, Calvin, was a Presbyterian minister and Bijou, our mother, was a homemaker and later a librarian. When John finished high school, he attended a small community college, but decided to go to San Francisco to get training to become an industrial diver.

John went to the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. At that time, California was the frontline of social and cultural change. The universities were vibrant and students were testing the social norms. John decided that social revolutions like the civil rights and anti-war movements could not be viewed from a backrow seat in a small Midwestern town.

John was part of the Good Earth Commune, which is spotlighted in David Talbot’s book, Season of the Witch. At this time members organized schools, child care centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens. They rehabilitated abandoned property and attempted to save houses from the wrecking ball and make a livable place for the dispossessed. Marijuana was a popular drug but was not considered a serious substance. That came much later. These were the early days before hard drugs and the accompanying violence.

“I help other inmates with their appeals and am known as the librarian and the radioman, depending on the day and the person.”

In 1974 John met a girl whose sister was a friend from the Good Earth days, and they have been together ever since. They married in 1982. After he was sent to prison they divorced, but she is a constant support in his life and his best friend. They have a 26-year-old son.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, John was part of a loose group of individuals that imported marijuana into Canada and Europe. For most of this time John lived out of the United States. It was a fluid group and everyone had a niche of expertise. Around 1986-1987 John withdrew and spent his time at home with his family doing various home improvement jobs, taking care of property, and working on his relationships with family. It seems that other members of the group continued to import—even into the U.S.

John and his wife and child were living in Hawaii in 1994 when he was indicted for this complicated conspiracy. His wife was completing her PhD in biology and he was a stay-at-home Dad. He was enjoying his time with family and certainly his young son.

I still remember the last time I spent with my brother while he was free. He met us at the Honolulu Airport, pushing a stroller wearing shorts and a shapeless T shirt. He had a brilliant smile. It was 1993, and now in his forties, John was a first-time father of a toddler. He loaded our bags in an old Saab with some dents and upholstery rips. Our father Calvin had died the year before and this visit was a time for family memories.

John has watched his son grow to the fine young man he is today with an engineering degree from an Columbia University. John’s ex-wife is his best friend and confidante. She completed her PhD and is now a professor and head of her department at a college in Pennsylvania. We all visit him together for holidays and birthdays. It’s both wonderful and bittersweet.

I can tell you about the brother I know. He is kind, calm, and unpretentious, with humor and an easy smile. He is endlessly creative and is able to repair the most pedestrian objects. He is pathologically thrifty, a quality no doubt inspired by Bijou.

“Until two years ago this first-time offender was housed in a high-security institution because of the length of his sentence.”

When Bijou died, I went through her belongings and found one of our grandmother’s albums. There were hundreds of pictures from my father’s childhood in Iowa. There was one of a field and on the back written in my Grandmother’s precise script was “Our Hemp Field.” That reminded me of a conversation I had with my father before his death.

Calvin was in his 80s, and I asked him if he ever smoked or drank. He was quiet for a moment. He was principled and could not lie. When he spoke again he said, “Well, I never smoked tobacco, but perhaps a little rope behind the barn.” A field of hemp and smoking behind the barn did not ruin a life in the early 1900s, but it does ruin lives now.

While in prison John has kept up with the building trades and has taken and taught classes that cover conventional and non-conventional home building. He has developed ACE courses to benefit participants after they leave. He was a mentor in the Fathers Behind Bars Discussion Group and has been a mentor in Code-Challenge Programs since 2003. He tries to model nonviolent conflict resolution.

John states that he lives his life in prison as a person of integrity and moderation. Until two years ago this first-time offender was housed in a high-security institution because of the length of his sentence. He lives responsibly, and over these 23 years of incarceration he has had an incident-free, unblemished record.

“My life is organized and I am productive,” John says. “I teach various exercise classes and construction classes to other inmates, as well as fixing radios and head phones. I help other inmates with their appeals and am known as the librarian and the radioman, depending on the day and the person.”

If John were released he would not become a burden to society and would continue to live his life in a peaceful, orderly manner. He is deeply sorry for all the problems that his mistakes caused his family and society. In many states, marijuana is now legal. A large percentage of Americans think marijuana should be legal everywhere. John Knock should be released.

John Knock
John Knock (right)

Name: John Knock
Sentence: two life sentences, plus 20 years
Offense: Conspiracy to distribute marijuana; conspiracy to import marijuana; conspiracy to money launder
Priors: none
Year sentenced: 2001 (Imprisoned since 1996, pre-trial detention)
Age at sentencing: 53
Projected release date: none

Issue: Sentencing