The letters sent from prison inmates follow a script. In block letters, handwritten in pencil, as many words as possible are squeezed onto irregular scraps of paper. Sentences are vague and innocuous so as to not raise the hackles of the prison censor. They're also profoundly depressing, even when the prisoner claims to be in good spirits.
“On the way here, the guards had the prisoner next to me taken out and killed,” read one letter I received from a man who is doing time for running a state-legal dispensary. “There are other things I can only tell you about in person.”
I was eager to take him up on the invitation for a visit. And I will never forget how the visit was foiled. On the phone inquiring about the visitation protocol, the prison camp's warden happily said I was welcome to apply. He followed that by saying, “As long as I've been warden, no inmate has ever accepted a visit from a reporter.” I could almost hear a satisfied Cool Hand Luke-like grin stretch across his face.
The message was clear: No ward of his was going to do any talking.
In the marijuana industry's Wolf of Wall Street year, with an increasing number of would-be investors and capitalists squeezing in beside the usual crowd of rogues, outlaws, and dreamers, it's easy to forget how recently marijuana was just a fringe movement with a few freaks leading the way.
Some of these “freaks” are in prison right now. While the storm of cash roars overhead, it's worth remembering those people imprisoned over a plant. Love them or hate them, it's your money that's keeping them incarcerated this Christmas.
Estimated release: 2019
Matthew Davies was ahead of his time. The Santa Clara University MBA was the Bain Capital of cannabis. But instead of shuttering distressed properties for shareholder profit, Davies turned shady pot clubs into clean, well-oiled medical machines that employed some 100 people. With his own production and distribution network feeding dispensaries in Sacramento and Stockton, his business model was nearly identical to the blueprints cannabis entrepreneurs are using in Colorado today. In 2011, federal agents raided his Stockton warehouse which housed thousands of plants and 50 pounds of pot. A plea to President Barack Obama for clemency went unanswered. Instead of going to trial and risking a 10-year minimum, he took a plea deal, and will serve five years in prison for business activities that California collected taxes on. “Our state happily took $100 million in tax money” from marijuana sales, he told the Sacramento Bee last year. “But when the time came to help us out, they were never to be found.”
Estimated release: 2018
Crime: Former U.S. Marine Dustin “DC” Costa ran a collective and advocacy group in California's Central Valley, a dangerous prospect now and in 2005, when zealous cops used Costa's PG&E bill to help obtain a search warrant for the activist's rural property. Initially charged in state court for 900 plants and 8.8 pounds of cannabis, the local U.S. attorney decided to take up the case in 2006 (in a court where state medical marijuana law is not a defense). Sentenced to a 15-year term, Costa may be eligible for release as early as 2018. After doing much of his pretrial detention in Texas, he's in a federal prison camp in Colorado.
Estimated release: May 8, 2021
Sandusky was the man behind Inland Empire dispensary network G3 Holistics. To supply the demand of 17,000 medical cannabis users at three locations, Sandusky had a grow of about 1,000 plants. That's enough to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum. After he closed two of his three dispensaries under federal pressure in 2011, the feds raided Sandusky's remaining pot club in Upland, where they found $11,500 in cash. After another federal trial in which state law, business licenses, and tax receipts were rejected as a defense, Sandusky received 10 years. As an industry operator with much bigger competitors in other parts of California, his crime was being too big too early — and in the wrong part of the state.
Mollie Fry & Dale Schafer
Ages: 58 and 60
Estimated release: Fry, Sept. 7, 2015; Schafer, Sept. 8, 2015
A physician recovering from breast cancer, Dr. Mollie Fry was growing 34 plants with her husband, attorney Dale Schafer, at their home in the Sacramento foothills. Local law allowed them up to 99 plants. Other legal medical marijuana users in the area could get some of the excess harvest for a $10 delivery fee. Sharing the crop wasn't what landed them in prison, nor was it the free edibles that undercover federal agents picked up at a workshop the couple gave at the local Grange hall. What triggered the mandatory minimum sentence were the 100 plants the couple had cultivated over a period of five years. They spent 10 years and their life savings on a fruitless legal fight before going behind bars in 2011. A hemophiliac, Schafer has reportedly spent most of his term in a prison hospital.
To CONTACT A PRISONER: Addresses for federal correctional institutes can be found via the database atbop.gov/inmateloc
TO DONATE TO GREEN AID LEGAL DEFENSE: Visit green-aid.com or mail donations to Green Aid, 484 Lake Park Ave #172, Oakland, CA 94610.