Beth Curtis didn’t expect to devote her life to advocating for people in prison for marijuana convictions, but when her brother John Knock got a life sentence for a nonviolent cannabis offence, she couldn’t stand by without doing anything.
“When my brother received a sentence of that magnitude for marijuana, we were positive that it wouldn’t stand. Surely they didn’t give 2 life sentences plus 20 for a first-time, nonviolent marijuana-only offense,” she told Civilized.
After years of appeals exhausted all their other options, Curtis knew there was only one thing left to do: appeal to the public. In 2009, she started the website Life for Pot, which profiles inmates who are serving long sentences solely for marijuana-related charges.
Her brother is grateful for her support. It’s one of the few things that keeps him optimistic that things will change. When he last spoke to Civilized, just over a year ago, he had recently been denied clemency by President Obama.
“You can get very bitter about things, I see that all the time in here,” he said during a 15 minute phone call from Fairton FCI in New Jersey. “I see people who have lost. But it’s got to change sooner or later, it’s got to change.”
“Everything started going bad”
Knock moved to California in the late ‘60s, and quickly became involved in the freewheeling, pot-smoking lifestyle in San Francisco.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, he moved around, working at a hydroponic farm and learning how to grow cannabis. Then he started importing marijuana into Canada and Europe.
In the late ‘80s, he got out of the business, and focused on his family: his wife and young son. But apparently, the people he was working with kept importing, and started to get a little careless.
“Everything started going bad,” Knock said of the time that he was arrested in France and extradited to the United States. “I tried to tell the [French] courts that I was out of it, I only moved things, this is against the law back home. They didn’t care. I’m just one cog in the machine, it doesn’t matter to them.”
After three years in a Parisian prison, he was sent back to the United States, on the condition that he wasn’t tried for anything before 1986. The United States ignored that condition, and charged him with conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and money laundering.
He went to trial, was found guilty, and was sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years. He was never getting out.
It’s a hefty sentence for anyone, but more-so for Knock because he says he didn’t do a lot of the things they’re accusing him of. That’s why his sister is advocating for a change in the way that conspiracy laws work in the United States.
“Being charged with conspiracy is far more serious than you would ever expect,” she explained, “because it charges you with things that you maybe didn’t do or even didn’t know about.”
Conspiracy laws rest primarily on the testimony of other people involved, and are widely used in drug cases. Prosecutors like them because there doesn’t have to be any physical evidence, and they can convict a wide number of people by getting them to give up names of others involved in the drug trade.
That’s what happened to Knock, according to Curtis, who says people are shocked when she tells them how long Knock is in prison for and what he did to end up there.
“When people hear that someone has a life sentence, or two life sentences they’re positive there must be dead bodies everywhere.”
And it’s worse for both of them given all the changes that are taking place in countries that are decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.
“All you can do is keep your sense of humour, because it is laughable,” Knock said. “I’m just trying to wait for the Americans. I don’t know why they’re dragging their feet. It’s almost like they’re kicking and screaming behind other countries in the world.”
Curtis, who sees the progress being made first-hand every day, believes that marijuana corporations have a duty to advocate for the people behind bars for the drug.
“In reality, [the corporations are] kind of standing on [the prisoners’] shoulders,” she said. “Today’s marijuana business enterprise is yesterday’s marijuana conspiracy.”
As for Knock, there’s a petition calling for President Trump to grant him clemency, but other than that, there's not much for him to do but wait for the laws to change.