In 2004, an angry neighbour called the National Forest Service about ATV tracks running through their property, and through the Chattahoochee National Forest next door. They also said they saw strange plants growing.
When the NFS agents followed the tracks, they came across a bunch of dead and dying marijuana plants. Following the tracks further, they came across a cabin with yet more plants.
This was the beginning of the end for marijuana lifer Andy Cox. The cabin was his father’s, and while he claims he didn’t have anything to do with the actual growing of the plants, he definitely knew what they were up to.
He had previously spent time in jail on a couple of other marijuana convictions. This was strike three, and it carried a mandatory life sentence. He spent three years on the run, then was caught, returned to Georgia, and received his sentence.
The official charge: conspiracy to manufacture and attempt to manufacture marijuana in and around the Chattahoochee National Forest.
The reason: 594 plants (3” to 4’) in the forest and 724 seedlings on his father’s property.
"These plants, that gave me life, they were an inch high," Cox said during a 15 minute phone call from USP Big Sandy in Kentucky. "Actually, they weren’t even plants, they were seedlings."
USP Big Sandy is broadly considered to be one of the worst maximum security prisons in the United States. The prison spends more time in lockdown than not.
"It’s a non-violent marijuana conspiracy, for growing marijuana," Cox said, "but they’ve had me in maximum security prisons, so I’m stuck in the most violent, gang-infested prisons."
At his former prison, USP Pollock in Louisiana, he helped run the leather shop, teaching classes and working in the tool room. He’s a talented leather worker, and has people on the outside who sell his stuff for commissary money. But now, he just tries not to get in the way.
"Really, they don’t have any kind of hobbycraft to do here," he said, "so now I just kind of read and play handball and stuff, work out."
He’s been in prison for 10 years now, and he only has one disciplinary write up: for a fight that he says he had to take part in, or risk being a target for future violence.
When he talks to guards and fellow prisoners, they can’t believe what landed him where he is.
"They say, 'who’d you kill, you’ve got to have bodies on your case or something like that.' I say no, and I show them pictures of the seedlings. These right here, sitting next to this driveway."
'I’ll never touch marijuana again'
The first two times that Cox got in trouble for marijuana, it didn’t seem to push him away from the drug at all. Now though, with ten years under his belt and countless to go, he’s more contemplative.
"I don’t know why I kept messing with marijuana," he said, "because me and my wife had a thriving restaurant business. It doesn’t make sense now that i look back on it. I gave my whole family away for this."
He doesn’t do any drugs in prison, but he also says that even once he’s out, he’ll never touch the stuff again.
"[Prison has] definitely changed my relationship with it. I’ll never touch marijuana again. I can’t."
But that doesn’t mean that he thinks it’s wrong now, or that he’s been reformed. He still believes that it causes very little harm, and he sees this firsthand when he looks at some of the other drugs that his fellow inmates are hooked on.
He says that when he was working in the shop at USP Pollock, he’d see a bunch of people who were high on spice, a synthetic marijuana substitute that has been taking over prisons.
"I’d look at them, and they’d be talking all kinds of craziness," he said. "And walking around like zombies, and I’m thinking to myself, if they were smoking weed, they wouldn’t be nothing like this."
He’s still working to get out, and he’s hopeful that as the laws change, he will receive a pardon for his sentence. But for now, he’s just keeping his head down and his spirits up.