I’m in a park in a small Northern California town called Chico, on an early spring day.
Hundreds of people have gathered to protest Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrests of five prominent local families for growing marijuana. Stalwart, respected members of this tightly-knit college town community face 25 years to life sentences and loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and property. The crowd is angry.
Activists Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris have erected a “wall of shame” that they call the Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit ? it stretches a hundred feet under the park’s towering trees.
Laminated photos and text adorn the wall, showing drug war victims and telling their stories. Watching people peruse the wall is like watching people visit the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C. The images and words make us catch our breath, bow our heads, pray for: faces of little children orphaned by the war, their letters pleading for mom and dad to be released from prison; African-American women, elderly white men, long-haired deadheads, fat people, skinny people ? all locked away, some for life terms.
Conrad and Norris are signing copies of their books Shattered Lives: Portraits from Americas Drug War, and Human Rights and the US Drug War. A large crowd is gathered around them, buying books, telling the couple how much the wall of shame exhibit has touched their lives.
Three undercover marijuana officers who have busted many of the people in the crowd, including me, are sequestered nearby, their guns and badges barely concealed.
Earlier, I had asked one of them, Butte County Sheriff’s Detective Pat Dickie, if he had looked at the exhibit.
“Why should I? It’s just a bunch of leftists and hippies,” he’d replied. His companions, Detectives Andy Dally and Devon Klein, also refused to look at the wall.
Conrad approached and offered the cops free copies of his books. They looked at Conrad’s offerings the same way vampires look at silver crucifixes. They hastily left the area. With a sigh of sadness, Conrad went back to signing books.
Literary hemp history
Conrad and Norris may well be the American marijuana movement’s pre-eminent power couple. Married in 1991, the pair met at an anti-Reagan Solidarity rally in 1981, had a second date at an anti-nuclear rally, fell in love with each others’ idealism and spirit, and have been working to change the world ever since.
In 1989, Conrad and Norris decided to focus their progressive activism on ecology and hemp. They spent a year in Europe, where Conrad wrote Hemp ? Lifeline to the Future. Conrad correctly describes it as a comprehensive, irrefutable, and profoundly logical argument for the full restoration of industrial hemp, medical marijuana, and adults’ rights to enjoy marijuana responsibly. The book is one of the most prescient and readable books about hemp’s ecological and industrial value.
While living in Holland in 1992, Conrad installed exhibits in the Hash-Marijuana-Hemp museum. During the 1990s, Norris and Conrad have founded or served in the leadership of many important organizations, including the Family Council on Drug Awareness, the Hemp Industries Association, the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp, and Californians for Medical Rights, an organization which helped qualify California’s Proposition 215 for the ballot in 1996. While Conrad and Norris were working to pass Prop 215, Conrad was also working to complete Hemp for Health, a fascinating and practical book that explains the medical and nutritional uses of cannabis.
“This book demonstrates that millions of people can benefit from therapeutic use of cannabis,” Conrad says, “and that the recipes to do so were common knowledge to our ancestors.”
Like his earlier book, this one is fun to read, eminently informative, and solidly-researched.
Displaying shattered lives
The Shattered Lives concept originated in 1995, when Norris was at an activists’ meeting and saw a photograph and plea for help sent from Jodie Israel, a Montana woman sentenced to 11 years in prison for four ounces of marijuana. Israel’s husband received a 29 year sentence.
“They are making orphans of the children,” Israel’s letter said. “They cry and miss their parents who they love and who were good to them.”
Later, Norris met Virginia Resner, whose boyfriend Steven Faulkner was also in prison on a drug offense. Resner was the California representative of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM); she’d been collecting photos and autobiographies from women prisoners.
The trio assembled photographs and ethnographies of people who had been victimized by the drug war, and began displaying them in June, 1995. Soon, the presentation evolved into a multi-faceted gallery show capable of targeted installations in a variety of venues. It has been seen across the United States and Europe. The show debuted on the internet in 1997. Norris and Conrad are planning a Shattered Lives cd-rom.
This is America?
Conrad says that many people viewing the exhibit have a hard time believing that the American government is capable of such cruelty.
“The first times we showed the exhibit,” he recalls, “people kept asking us ?What country has these terrible penalties for non-violent, victimless crimes?’ and we kept responding, ?It’s the USA.’ People keep hearing that pot is practically legal, that judges are soft, that penalties are too light. This exhibit really opens their eyes to the vicious, anti-family, un-American reality of the drug war.”
Resner, Norris and Conrad began planning the Shattered Lives book in 1996. FAMM and other organizations procured prisoners’ stories and photos, and the trio also gathered information from prisoners and their families.
Other research included examining government documents, drug policy literature, legislative and legal decisions, and official statistics so the book could contain contextual information about the prison-industrial complex, mandatory minimums and the monetary cost of the war on drugs. The authors also networked with drug reform and criminal justice groups, and found that the internet has become a powerful tool for social change.
“Virginia saw the book as a way to educate students and the public about the drug war,” Norris explained. “I saw it as a picture book, a kind of serious People magazine, filled with interesting personal stories that illustrated how the war affected individuals lives. Chris helped us combine those two visions.”
The authors struggled with the usual problems involved in creating a book ? money, art, layout, editing, designing. But because the book was about a controversial topic that mainstream media has deliberately chosen not to cover, they also had to deal with personal traumas, including the death of Resner’s boyfriend, Steven Faulkner, in early 1998.
Faulkner’s photo is in the book. He is a handsome man, with beautifully long, silver hair. A special dedication accompanying the picture reads: His arrest and imprisonment helped inspire this work; his words and support for human rights helped carry the message of justice; his untimely death soon after his release has been a great loss to us all.
Wounds of war
Norris and Conrad seem like they have always been serious, empathetic people, moved by the suffering of humans and the planet, willing to feel more than most people allow themselves to feel.
Understandably, they acknowledge that the Shattered Lives project has left its mark on their souls.
“In the course of working on this book,” Conrad says, “there were times when I felt emotions rise and plunge and bring tears to my eyes for these ruined lives. Why is this government at war with its own people? You look into these little children’s eyes, read the letters to moms and dads who won’t be coming home for many, many years. You read a poem about some inmate’s plight. You find out about innocent people gunned down by narcotics agents. How can this happen in America? Where is the outrage at these human rights abuses?”
Norris describes the Shattered Lives subject matter as difficult and heart-wrenching.
“Working on the exhibit and book has made me very paranoid,” she admits. “Prior to this, I had no idea the drug war was so out of control. So many innocent people are in prison, along with people who have only very minor participation in a drug offense. The conspiracy laws can get you; knowing what others are doing but not reporting it can qualify you as a conspirator and land you in prison. America today seems like the beginning stages of Nazi Germany ? the demonization, the rounding up of people in camps, taking away their property, destroying families and lives. With this work, I feel more connected to my Jewish heritage. I think much of my activism comes from the fact that many Jewish people are especially sensitive to scapegoating, persecution, and the need to be vigilant for our human and civil rights.”
Conrad and Norris say they are channeling their anger and sadness into promoting Shattered Lives and into new projects. Conrad has started a new book, The Hemp Millenium, and is trying to find time to do a book solely on prisoners charged with marijuana crimes.
Going to the heart
Norris and Conrad talk candidly, and with a sense of humor, about the hardships of working for the cannabis cause. Although they’re busy all the time, with Conrad testifying as an expert witness at marijuana trials and Norris networking with social justice activists, they worry about their own future and about the lack of funding and professionalism in the cannabis movement.
They plead for more people to buy their books, but their request has little to do with paying the bills. Instead, they see Shattered Lives as a tool for change.
“Everybody needs to get this book,” says Norris, a former special education and language teacher. “If we could make this a best seller, the drug war would be over. Most people cannot read it without tears. It goes to the heart, and helps readers relate to prisoners as people, as their neighbors or family or somebody they know. They can recognize themselves in these stories. After reading the book, most people realize we can not keep doing this to our fellow human beings.”
Later that afternoon, I listen as Conrad wows the crowd with an impassioned 40-minute speech that depicts the drug war for what it is, a cultural war, waged by idiots whose motivation is to stomp out a miracle plant and the people who love it.
“We didn’t choose to fight this drug war,” he says passionately. “It chose us. Now, we have to do whatever it takes to fight this evil and change this system. No more shattered lives!”
James Geddes was arrested on an Oklahoma street with a friend in 1992, and a police search of the friend’s house found a bit of pot and paraphernalia, and five plants in the vegetable garden.
There was no evidence that Geddes lived at the house, and he refused to plea bargain, pleading not guilty. He received a sentence of 75 years for cultivation and another 75 for possession. On appeal his 150-year sentence was reduced to 90 years.
Amy Pofahl had been separated from her husband for a year when he was arrested for manufacturing MDMA in Germany. She helped him out during his confinement and trial, and thereby became a target of US federal agents. They demanded Pofahl assist them in gathering evidence against her husband, and when she refused the feds had her arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit the crimes of her ex-husband.
Pofahl refused to plea bargain and give information she didn’t have, and her court-appointed attorney did not present her with the defense she requested. Her husband served four years in Germany and is out. Amy is beginning her eighth year in prison from her 24-year sentence.
Gary Tucker, his wife Joanne and his brother Steven were owners of a hydroponics store in Georgia. The DEA wanted to put secret cameras in their store and survey his customers, and the Tuckers refused. The Tuckers were subsequently charged with “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana” and “knowingly knowing that others were growing marijuana” based on a few convictions of their customers.
No marijuana or paraphernalia was found in the Tuckers home or store, they were not caught buying or selling pot, and all the equipment they sold is legal. Gary received a 16 year sentence, later reduced to 10 years, while Joanne and Steve received 10 years each.
Jodie Israel and her husband Calvin Treiber were among 24 people arrested for marijuana conspiracy in Montana. Israel was charged with possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, plus an alleged sale of four ounces (of which there was no evidence), money laundering, and conspiracy to sell larger amounts of marijuana. She received an 11 year sentence. Their four children, who ranged in age from 12 years down to 3 1/2, have been placed in four separate foster homes by the state, since their mother and their father are now locked away.
Will Foster is a Vietnam veteran with rheumatoid arthritis, and was growing 60 medicinal pot plants in a 6’x6′ space. His house was raided on an anonymous tip in 1997. The jury was not allowed to hear his medical defense, and Foster was convicted and sentenced to 93 years, later reduced to 20 years on appeal.
? Books mentioned in this article are available at Creative Xpressions, PO Box 1716, El Cerrito, California 94530; tel (510) 215-8326; web www.chrisconrad.com.
? The Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit is online at: www.hr95.org; Contact information for these POWs is there, or email [email protected].