It’s been 15 years since Craig Cesal was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent marijuana conspiracy offense, and still he hears one question more than any other: “Who did [you] kill?”

“Every institution I go to, I get questioned by a bunch of officers who ask me if it’s true that I’m serving life for marijuana. Even the people who run the federal prisons are surprised by that,” Cesal, a first-time offender, told Civilized during a 15-minute phone call from the federal correctional institution in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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Craig Cesal

Cesal was arrested in March 2002 when his Chicago towing and repair company was tasked with retrieving an abandoned truck. Without his knowledge, he says, the truck had earlier been used to transport marijuana, which was seized at the Mexican border en route to North Carolina. Cesal was charged with “Conspiracy to Distribute” marijuana and has been serving a life sentence ever since.

He believes he was sentenced at a time when authorities thought “drugs were the root of all crime” and that “America has [since] gotten past that narrative.”

“Marijuana has been fairly well accepted throughout the U.S. for quite some time now… and yet [marijuana offenders] are still sentenced as the worst of the worst,” said Cesal.

“It’s time for change… but part of the problem is a [lack of] public awareness."

Indeed, while the cannabis legalization movement has made great strides in the United States in recent years, clemency for those serving marijuana life sentences doesn’t tend to take up much space in most advocacy platforms, despite the fact that the U.S. war on drugs is estimated to cost roughly $51-billion a year. 

Cesal attributes this gap in activists' platforms to the fact that “most people don’t even know we’re in here." 

In a nutshell, it means there’s not much to celebrate as the legalization movement gains traction for people like Cesal and the unknown number of other ‘marijuana lifers’ like him. 

There were, of course, the 330 commutations for nonviolent drug offenders granted by former US president Barack Obama shortly before he left office, which brought his total number of clemencies over the course of his presidency to 1,715.

And while the move was deemed “a great victory for some” by Cheri Sicard, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Lifer Project, she believes “the whole clemency process needs an overhaul.”  

“With the clemency process under the Obama administration, they had a lot of great intentions but it really seemed like they just threw darts at a pile of petitions and chose that way,” said Sicard, whose organization advocates for about 20 non-violent offenders sentenced to life in prison for cannabis-related crimes.

“There are so many deserving people who got left behind that it really defies logic. We have a paraplegic in a wheelchair in maximum security who got passed over. We have the world’s longest-serving marijuana prisoner, who is 81 years old and whose clemency petition was denied.

So I’m really happy for the people who got out, but the rhyme or reason for who got chosen makes no sense at all.”

Billy Dekle was granted clemency in 2015 after serving 25 years for “conspiracy to import over 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.” His good fortune is never far from his mind.  

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Billy Dekle

“It weighs on my mind a little bit, how lucky I am,” Dekle told Civilized over the phone from his home in Lake City, Florida. “I often wonder what it was that tipped the scales in my favor… when there were people just as deserving [of clemency] as I was.”

With the recent confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General – a man who once infamously declared that “the Ku Klux Klan were OK until I found out they smoked pot” – it’s particularly hard to be optimistic about the fates of those still stuck behind bars for non-violent marijuana offenses, said Sicard.

“I hold out some hope for the prisoners, but to be honest it doesn’t look good,” she said.

“Sometimes they [the prisoners] are encouraged by legalization because they see [cannabis] as being normalized… but as time drags on, they’re still just being left behind, rotting away and forgotten.”

Going forward, Sicard urges cannabis advocates to make clemency for marijuana lifers a part of their platforms, by putting the pressure on “their representatives, their senators, their congressmen, the president” through letters and phone calls.

“It’s not serving anything to lock somebody away for the rest of their life because they imported a plant that’s now legal in many states,” said Sicard. “I think it’s pretty telling and pretty depressing that we can’t [realize] something as basic as the fact that a non-violent offender should not be serving a life sentence for marijuana.”

To learn more about Marijuana Lifers and the people convicted of non-violent marijuana offences, read 'America Is Full Of Hypocrites': Marijuana Lifer John Knock Speaks Out, published February 20, 2017.