Earlier this month, legalization advocates celebrated the heartwarming story of Weldon Angelos, who was reunited with his teenage children after he spent 12 years behind bars for selling marijuana to a police informant.
His kids would have been middle-aged at the time of the reunion had Angelos - a first time offender - served the entirety of his 55-year sentence. But he was freed after the judge and prosecutor that tried his case admitted that the mandatory-minimum sentence for Angelos' non-violent cannabis offence was unjust.
Unfortunately, Angelos' case is a rare happy ending in a criminal justice system in which many more people are serving life or de-facto life sentences with no chance of parole for non-violent marijuana offences. To hear their stories, we reached out to Cheri Sicard - founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for prisoners serving life or de-fact life sentences for cannabis offences.
Here are 7 things she wants you to know about Marijuana Lifers.
1. Marijuana Lifers aren't murderers
Sicard stresses that the inmates her group advocates for are in prison for non-violent cannabis offences. That distinction is important because a lot of people assume that anyone with a life sentence with no chance of parole must have killed someone.
"It would be really shocking to most people to learn this," says Sicard. "Most people assume there's a dead body somewhere if somebody's doing life. I used to assume that...But it's absolutely not true in any of these cases."
2. Many are victims of an exploited system
Most marijuana lifers are locked away with life or de-facto life sentences with no chance of parole because of conspiracy charges in which one person involved in a crime - usually related to smuggling or selling large quantities of marijuana - fingers another as the ringleader.
"Conspiracy cases hold one person responsible for the activities of the entire group - regardless of how much or how little they actually had to do with it," Sicard told Civilized. "There's no real evidence needed to convict somebody of a conspiracy offense. All that's really needed is the testimony of somebody who is usually trying to avoid jail time themselves. So, essentially, if somebody rats you out, that's all the evidence that is needed."
And that's a huge problem because too often the ringleader is the one who gets off by pinning the conspiracy on someone else.
"Usually the person who is in charge often gets out because they're the first one to rat out everyone else," Sicard added. "That's what happened to Michael Pelletier - a wheelchair-bound paraplegic since the age of 11 - who is serving life without parole for a non-violent marijuana conspiracy offense. He's in a maximum security penitentiary in a wheelchair...for marijuana."
3. Marijuana smokers are complicit in their crimes
There's no denying that many of the Marijuana Lifers are guilty of knowingly committing crimes for the sake of personal gain. But they still deserve our compassion, according to Sicard.
When we asked her how she would respond to people who think that these men deserve to be punished for breaking the law, she said, "If you're a marijuana smoker, that's pretty hypocritical. Because for everybody who smoked marijuana there was always somebody importing quote-unquote 'too much marijuana' - or profiting from it. These people took those risks [for recreational users]."
4. Marijuana Lifers would rather be charged as terrorists
You know the judicial system must be broken if a marijuana convict envies someone convicted of terrorism. That's the case with Craig Cesal, who wrote an article for the Marijuana Lifer Project pleading to be punished as a rapist or a terrorist because his sentence for those crimes would be shorter than his sentence for conspiring to smuggle marijuana.
"All he did was repair the trucks that had hauled marijuana," says Sicard of Cesal's role. "He never touched it. Never saw it. These were abandoned vehicles that his company was hired to pick up and repair...But it takes very little to convict in a conspiracy offence...It's really crazy how the conspiracy laws in this country work."
Sicard says that Cesal's case is symptomatic of laws that just don't make sense.
"Even if you hate marijuana, I would say it makes no fiscal sense at all to incarcerate somebody for the rest of their lives for a crime - I don't care how much weed it was - when nobody was physically hurt. There were no victims. There was no violence. Nobody got killed. We let rapists, we let murderers we let terrorists out....There's no logical sense for it whatsoever, regardless of the amount of weed."
5. Lifers only get one appeal
For lifers, the chances of getting an appeal - let alone having their sentence reduced - is extremely slim.
"They get one chance at appeal," Sicard explains. "If that fails, they're done. In theory, they should be able to get back in front of court if there's new evidence but trying to actually make that happen is nearly impossible."
The injustice of the situation becomes clear when you consider the case of Paul Free, who has served more than 20 years for a conspiracy offense involving marijuana smuggling. Free has evidence he says could prove his innocence, but the courts won't hear it.
"He's been trying to get back in front of the courts for 21 years. He just got turned down by the Supreme Court...even though he has new evidence," said Sicard. "The defendant that testified against him...has now come forward and said he was threatened to do so, that he never knew Paul, that Paul was not the person he did this crime with. And still, Paul is serving life without parole and can't get back in front of a court to even consider this new evidence."
6. They get support from fellow prisoners and guards
Fellow inmates have written to Sicard, saying that they can't believe people are stuck in prison for the rest of their lives because of cannabis offences. And they're not the only ones in the prison system who feel that the system has failed.
"Even the guards are often shocked...The guards in the prison now visit our website regularly. And it's really surprising to them that this could happen. Even they see the absurdity of it. But, it's just the way the system works."
7. Marijuana needs support from voters
Sicard says the chances of these prisoners winning appeals or receiving presidential clemency are slim. But she says people can help them out by getting in touch with politicians and voicing concerns over the justice system's failings in the legal system.
"Write to your elected officials on behalf of these prisoners," Sicard said. "Or we have a page on how to help each one of the prisoners."
And another way to help is simply to discus the issue and spread awareness
"Talk about this problem because the Marijuana Lifers are the dirty little secret of the Justice Department. And most people don't know they exist. So awareness is a big part of our campaign too."