*Special thanks to Beth Curtis of Life for Pot for her help in putting this list together.
Today, more than twenty states have legalized marijuana in some form or another, with marijuana becoming a consumer product in some states with billions in sales. However, with some research, you can find that some people continue to serve life sentences across the country for marijuana charges. Many of these marijuana charges resulted in sentences before marijuana became legal and state laws were eventually loosened. People charged federally can still receive sentences of life without parole. Virtually all individuals serving life sentences for marijuana were charged with conspiracy and elected to exercise their sixth amendment right to trial.
These nonviolent offenders have been removed from society and have been sentenced to life without parole due to the laws under the federal system. Today we want to focus on their stories and call attention to reform and the changes that need to take place in our states so that many families can return to their normal, everyday lives.
John Knock (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
John Knock found out that his life would be forever changed when he received life for a nonviolent cannabis conspiracy. In fact, the charges were so severe that he received two life sentences plus twenty years for a first-time offender, which his family found to be outrageous. Because of the absurdity of the situation, his sister Beth Curtis started the website Life for Pot, profiling inmates who have been placed in prison with life sentences for the same types of crimes.
John Knock became involved in the lifestyle of California recreation in the ‘60s when he initially moved there, eventually working at a farm and learning how to grow cannabis. In the late ‘80s, he withdrew from the conspiracy and started focusing all of his time on his family. His friends continued to import even though the laws around him were changing. Knock was arrested in France on a US warrant and was extradited to the US in 1999. The French put stipulations on his extradition that he would not be prosecuted for anything prior to 1986. When he arrived on US soil there was a superseding indictment that violated the extradition agreement. John Knock elected to go to trial and received 2 life terms plus 20.
Knock remains in prison, despite the fact that he never received violent charges. President Obama denied John Knock’s petition for clemency.
Update 2021: John Knock has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Michael Pelletier (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
Michael Pelletier is also sitting in federal prison serving a sentence of life without parole – and has been a wheelchair-bound paraplegic since the age of 11. Prosecutors and press reports that came out around the time of his arrest made him out to be a kingpin in a drug ring that was making billions of dollars, but the case was vastly exaggerated.
Pelletier’s run-in with marijuana began when he was 14 and started treating his physical and psychological symptoms of his paraplegia with the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. He only purchased enough to be able to treat the symptoms of pain, spasticity, and more for his personal use. He bought from a man who lied under oath and admitted to transporting drugs, which put Pelletier in the middle of the madness. Pelletier was a cog in a conspiracy. The group put marijuana in back packs in Canada and swam across the St. John’s river to Maine.
Even though it was proven that the co-conspirator was lying under oath, Pelletier received the highest sentence, life without parole. The judge refused to listen to Pelletier’s background and instead turned to the words of liars to send him behind bars. Michael Pelletier was charged with conspiracy and went to trial. Pelletier’s petition for clemency was not acted on by President Obama.
Update 2021: Michael Pelletier has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Ismael Lira was another first-time offender who was sentenced to life for the distribution of marijuana. As of right now, Lira is working on commuting his federal sentence even though he was originally denied doing so under President Barack Obama. He has discovered that there are very few options for legal recourse.
Lira has currently been incarcerated for over 14 years but discovered that the federal parole was abolished about two decades ago, which means that he is left without a release date. He, as well as many others who support his case, believes that certain egregious behavior took place on behalf of those who were prosecuting him at the time and might have even been fabricating evidence based on the parameters of the case.
Lira has strong community and family ties and hopes that he is going to be given a second chance. Ismael’s petition for clemency was denied by President Obama.
Ferrell Scott (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
Ferrell Scott received a sentence to life in prison for possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Because he felt that the sentence being given was ludicrous given the circumstances, Scott moved forward to appeal President Obama for clemency. He found that his bid had been denied through an email that a friend received.
Ferrell Scott and his family continue to fight toward a plan that could reduce the life sentences of every nonviolent lifer to no more than 20 years. Scott was in prison for eight years before he filed for clemency, but the guidelines state that those who wish for clemency must have served ten years. However, this is only a guideline and many people are finding that it is not guaranteed.
Scott remains in prison where he has felt the effects of depression and wonders if he will ever be a part of the outside world again after this horrific sentence. Scott’s petition for clemency was denied by President Obama, but he is hoping that it well be reconsidered.
Update 2021: Ferrell Scott has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Corvain Cooper (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
Corvain Cooper is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for marijuana-related crimes. His mother Barbara Tillis fears that she will never get to see her son out from behind bars again. In fact, every few months for the years that he has been incarcerated, Tillis has driven five hours with her husband, daughter, and Cooper’s oldest daughter so that they could spend time with Cooper. However, things changed when Cooper was transferred to a federal prison in Louisiana, which means that his family can no longer afford the trip out to see him.
Cooper is now sitting in Louisiana where he continues to serve his life in prison without parole for conspiracy to sell marijuana. In 2013, he was found guilty of money laundering, tax evasion, and conspiracy to distribute over a ton of marijuana. Cooper had packed and shipped the marijuana but there was no violence involved in the crime. Cooper’s co-conspirators are mostly all at home now but, for some reason, Cooper is sitting in prison for life. He believes that it might be due to the fact that he had two prior drug felonies on his record even though it should have not left an impact since courts were instructed not to pursue enhanced sentences if you were charged with a non-violent drug offense.
The prosecutors on the case decided to find a loophole, which was applying the Three Strikes Law to Cooper’s case, which gave him life without parole. He found that there were changes made in California law that would reduce prior drug convictions from felonies to misdemeanors but, after reaching out to all resources, he found that a federal court in North Carolina refused to reduce the sentence.
Cooper has been left with little in the way of options except to try and appeal the case in Supreme Court. Cooper has hope for clemency.
Update 2021: Corvain Cooper has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Pedro Moreno was charged with conspiracy with intent to distribute 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, as well as money laundering. He was sentenced to life and has served over 21 years in prison already. Moreno says that he and his four brothers were all convicted of the same charges in the same indictment. However, though his brothers all received clemency in 2017, Moreno did not. Now he is hoping that he will receive the mercy that his brothers did for the same charges.
At the time of his plea, Moreno was told by his attorney that if he accepted a quick plea, he would not receive a sentence of over 20 years. During the past many decades in prison, Moreno has completed many educational courses and was always a hard-working citizen in the community. He sadly lost his wife and his daughter got married while he was in prison, and he wasn’t able to attend either the funeral or the wedding. He hopes to be able to receive clemency so that he can be reunited with his family, including the many grandchildren he is unable to spend time with.
Andy Cox (Freed January 2021)
Andy Cox’s story began when an angry neighbor contacted the National Forest Service in 2004, claiming that they found ATV tracks running through their property and that they saw strange plants growing in the area. NFS agents were released to the area, which is where they found a cabin with marijuana growing around it. Andy Cox admitted that the cabin was his father’s and that he was not participating in growing the plants, but that he knew what they were and what they were doing.
Cox had previously spent time in prison for a variety of other marijuana convictions, which meant that he was on strike three and would be serving a mandatory life sentence. Cox tried to run so that he wouldn’t have to live out a sentence in prison but after three years, he was caught and told he needed to live out his sentence.
Now, Cox is in one of the most violent, gang-infested prisons, as he describes it – for a crime that only happened because there were one-inch seedlings sprouting on the property of the cabin. Cox and his family had a family restaurant that fell under since he was unable to be there to take care of it, and he feels remorse about what happened. Many people assume that he is in prison for a violent crime such as murdering somebody, but he claims that he always takes out his picture of the seedlings and says that this landed him a life sentence. Cox petition for clemency was denied by the past administration but he has hope for compassion and clemency.
Craig Cesal (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
Almost two decades ago, Craig Cesal was working at the trucking repair business that he owned, repairing trucks that had been leased and used to smuggle pot. Cesal knew that the trucks were being used for this cause but, because he didn’t report it, he was arrested on marijuana conspiracy charges. He is serving a life sentence without parole because he didn’t take a plea bargain, even though he had no criminal history in the past.
He was held completely responsible for everything the kingpin and smugglers had done when using the trucks. Every other person involved in the case testified against him and all of them are free today.
Now, Cesal’s family is aware that there is a grave reality to the situation, and a desperation that makes them fight for his rights today. Unfortunately, Cesal has a variety of medical complications, including diabetes. His family believes that his needs are not being met, which means that they want to have his sentence commuted so that he can get the help he deserves and spend time with the family that he missed out on.
Update 2021: Craig Cesal has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Hector McGurk also landed in prison for life due to a marijuana conviction. At this first trial, the jury did not convict him and it seemed like he had all the hope in the world, but this was quickly pulled out from under him. Now that he is older, his care is getting more intense, as he struggles to manage his Diabetes. He originally had an attorney assigned to him to help him with his Clemency Petition, but he knows that everything he is working toward could fail him.
McGurk’s first trial ended in a hung jury. Unfortunately, though he was a non-violent offender and he should not be sentenced to a life without parole, he was tried again for conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana and money-laundering conspiracies. He has been violence-free his entire life but remains in and out of cells with those who have been charged for violent crimes. McGurks petition for clemency was denied by the Obama administration, but he has hope for reconsideration.
Way Quoe Long (Pardoned by Donald Trump)
In 1975, Way Quoe Long moved from Laos to the United States – but he was sadly incarcerated by 1996 on de-facto life without parole. Long has never given up hope, but he believes that his sentence included faulty evidence and ineffective counsel. As a result, he has been trapped behind bars for a non-violent marijuana growing offense. Long was blamed on many charges when a man who owned a growing farm was arrested and pinned all the blame on him so that he could be released and come home to his pregnant wife. Unfortunately, Long ended up getting the short end of the stick and could now remain in prison for life.
Currently, all of Long’s appeals have been denied even though he never had a criminal history and is known to lead a peaceful life. Long’s petition for clemency was denied by President Obama, but he has hope for reconsideration.
Update 2021: Way Quoe Long has been pardoned by Donald Trump.
Serving a Life Sentence for Marijuana
President Biden’s recent mass pardon for federal marijuana convictions will do little to help those convicted at the state level. Some sources estimate there are roughly 30,000 behind bars for state marijuana possession charges. In those numbers there are still at least 70 people serving a life sentence for marijuana charges that include no violence; according to the American Civil Liberties Union although there may be far more as the data does not specifically break out marijuana only offenders. Justice has certainly not been served for any of these men and women. Older inmates are serving sentences of life without parole and wonder if they will die behind bars, which is why these laws need to change.
These cases can be extremely stressful and life-altering for those who have experienced it, leaving a lasting emotional and physical impact that they could never recover from if help doesn’t arrive. If your loved one has received similar charges and could be facing incarceration for life, it is a good idea to retain legal counsel who can work tirelessly on your behalf and help you receive real results you can count on. Contact our Boulder criminal defense attorneys today to find out how we can assist you at (303) 447-1400.