Depending on whom you talk to, Michael Pelletier is either a criminal mastermind or a victim of America's broken judicial system.
The 62-year-old paraplegic is serving a life sentence without parole for conspiracy to import over 1,000 kilograms of marijuana from Canada, and not much has changed in his case since we last spoke.
According to the prosecutors, he was running a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise, hiring smugglers to swim vast amounts of cannabis across the Saint John River, and using the profits to build a life of luxury.
But Pelletier says that’s far from the case. He was just smuggling for himself and a few friends.
“They say it was over 1,000 kilos, which is over a ton,” he told me over a 15 minute phone call from Terre Haute USP. “And Jericho, you might as well say I'm Santa Claus, I mean, it's unreal.”
Marijuana as medicine
Pelletier was paralyzed from the waist down at age 11, when he hitched a ride on the back of a tractor on one of his dad’s potato farms. His brother was driving, and when he made a sharp turn, Pelletier was thrown off and crushed.
He’s been in a wheelchair ever since, and in the beginning, he coped with his situation using alcohol, but he wasn’t a good drunk.
"I was suicidal back then," he said. "I’d get drunk and get stupid, and I’d turn into an idiot, and I just hated life."
So he turned to marijuana when he was 14, and it helped him to deal with his paraplegia in a somewhat healthier way. "When I smoked a little bit of weed," he said, "it did me a lot of good."
Not only was it helpful for his mental wellbeing, but it helped with a lot of the symptoms of paralysis, such as bladder spasms, without any of the side effects of the medications he was taking before.
Since he lived on the border, and was born in Edmundston, New Brunswick, he knew how much better the cannabis was in Canada, so he started to bring some over when he crossed to smoke it himself.
"And then, you know how it is, you share," he said, "because northern Maine [marijuana] from Mexico, or wherever it comes from, we had garbage, dirt, you know, branches and seeds. So all of a sudden, they have this quality, and that's how it happened."
Pelletier had two prior marijuana convictions, and the third one landed him in prison for life. He’s been in federal facilities since then.
Although he’s tried to make the best of his situation, Pelletier doesn’t mince words when it comes to how he feels about prison.
"Prison is a nightmare," he said. "I'm here with a marshal who killed two of his wives, there are dudes in here who have 18 to 20 bodies on them, and they have the same facility, same food, same everything as I do."
And when you’re confined to a wheelchair, it can make things way worse. The prison facility isn’t exactly accessible, so he is confined to his cell a lot more often than other prisoners. Plus, the healthcare he receives is inadequate.
He hasn’t received any physical therapy since he was admitted, and because of this, his legs have developed blood clots and other issues.
In fact, the only reason that other prisoners don’t also see him as a target is because they think he’s a member of the Canadian Hells Angels. Apparently, that term was thrown around during his trial and ended up on his paperwork, and while it’s not true, Pelletier’s not about to tell his fellow inmates that.
"I pretend to be a tough guy," he said. "In here, they want to see my paperwork, and when they see Hells Angels, 'oh, marijuana, he's good, good man, nobody messes with him'."
Oil painting passions
His other hobby is oil painting. He has honed his skills while in prison, and he even teaches a painting class to other inmates, for which the Federal Bureau of Prisons pays him a whopping $4.80 per month.
He also works with people on the outside to sell his paintings, both in galleries and online, and uses the income he receives from his pieces to top up his commissary account and start to pay off some of the insane fines that he’s incurred.
He also has a clemency request that’s still pending, so he’s waiting for the results of that as well. And with everything going on, he’s hopeful that he might someday see the outside of the prison walls once again.
"A lot of things are going on, I guess, and the laws are changing a little bit with the marijuana," he said, "so I don't know what's going to happen, really. I pray it's something I get."