Prisoners of consciousness

Many people are under the impression that pot is no big deal anymore, but nearly 700,000 people get arrested for it every year in the US. This is expensive in a personal and economic sense. Just being charged can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, aside from loss of liberty and employment.
If convicted of any marijuana offense, a US citizen suffers a series of indignities and abuses. These typically include the loss of their driver’s license, educational loans, and access to public housing. In the event of a breakup of the family, parental rights are stripped away from the cannabis consumer and given to the other parent, without regard to fitness or capability.

Depending on the nature of the charges placed against a person, the state may seize their personal property without trial, including vehicles, home, bank accounts, business, and any cash or other items of value. Such penalties do not apply to murderers, rapists, or corporate criminals. Conviction can result in further penalties, including severe mandatory minimum prison sentences and large fines, as well as loss of voting rights, the right to hold political office, and other basic civil rights.

Reverend Tom Brown: 5 years in prison.Reverend Tom Brown: 5 years in prison.No religious freedom

Every time anyone is harmed by the drug war, everyone suffers. When one person’s legal and human rights are violated, the rest of us will soon find our own fundamental rights stripped away as well.

The Reverend Tom Brown spent nearly five years behind bars for asserting his freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the first Amendment to the US Constitution. In a carefully constructed challenge to the federal prohibition against sacramental cannabis use, Brown helped to found “Our Church” in Arkansas in 1988 and to incorporate it in 1994 with a congregational board.

To protect his land, Brown deeded a single acre to the church for use in cultivating its sacred flower. But in August 1994, when the crop was raided, police seized the entire property. Brown was not allowed to present a constitutional religious defense in his court case, and was sentenced to ten years – later reduced to five. He has only recently emerged from prison, but no longer has his beloved blueberry farm to go home to. What if such a severe penalty were applied to churches that serve sacramental wine to under-age persons?

Donald Scott: innocent man killed by police.Donald Scott: innocent man killed by police.Murdered by police

Being innocent of breaking the law is not even a protection. Donald Scott was a retired millionaire whose life seemed far removed from the civil warfare of the drug war. He lived with his loving wife on a pristine and remote piece of land. He kept to himself at his ranch on the edge of a National Forest in Southern California. He didn’t get out much, and his wife did the shopping at local stores. Since they weren’t breaking any laws, it never occurred to the couple that a multi-jurisdictional drug taskforce would be secretly concocting a charge against them.

The task-force told a judge they had “probable cause” to suspect that the reclusive eccentric was growing marijuana. Armed with the warrant, they could stage a raid and begin civil forfeiture proceedings against him to take his property and add it to the National Forest lands. That is all they needed. Even if a defendant is acquitted, the law often allows the government to keep the property.

It was a simple plan for the black-uniformed squadron of heavily armed men who gathered at the edge of his property on October 2, 1992. Kick in the door, overpower the couple, lay claim to the property and perhaps really find something to send the Scotts to prison. But something went wrong.

When police smashed through the door that morning, Scott’s wife Frances was in the living room. She began screaming for help: “Don’t shoot me! Don’t kill me!” Donald heard her from the bedroom and reached for a gun to defend his family. He stepped forward to face the unidentified intruders and was killed in a hail of bullets.

The coroner ruled the incident a homicide. Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury suggested that the raid had been inspired by the desire to take the Scott family ranch. Yet no one has been held liable for Donald Scott’s murder.

Ongoing tragedies

When this happens to a single person, it is a tragedy. But what happened to Scott is not an isolated case. Annie Rae Dixon was an 84-year-old Texas grandmother shot in her bed by drug police. Reverend Accelyne Williams was a minister in Boston who died of a heart attack when his home was raided by mistake. Zeke Hernandez was a teenager watching his family goat-herd when he was shot by US Marines near the Mexican border. The list of innocent drug war casualties goes on and on, documenting brutality and disregard for human life.

There is more than one way to take a life. Spending the bloom of youth or the entirety of one’s adult life in the degrading and often violent world of America’s prisons can destroy a life as surely as can a bullet. When entrapment and incarceration become routine government policy, that is a clear sign of repression. Another sign is dehumanization and stigmatization. In the drug war, human lives are reduced to statistics and tallied up amid political rhetoric about “sending a message.”

John Avery: `They basically killed my whole family.`John Avery: `They basically killed my whole family.`Destroying families

Prosecutors often turn family members against each other, by offering sentence reductions in return for damaging testimony.

“They basically killed my whole family,” says John Avery. His son had engaged in cultivating marijuana on the family property with the husband of his daughter, Michele, and a third partner. Avery’s son died in an accident just before the garden was discovered. To avoid a long prison sentence, Avery’s son-in-law turned informant against his own wife, along with John and his other daughter, Sheri. He joined his partner in telling a tale of conspiracy and blaming everything on the Averys.

No physical evidence was presented in court to substantiate the charges, except for one fingerprint on a piece of portable equipment. The Averys maintain that they are innocent and were framed by the son-in-law and his associate as part of a deal to get lighter sentences. If so, the betrayal worked. While John Avery was sentenced to 20 years, Michele to ten and Sheri to 61/2, the two snitches served only 5 and 21/2 years for their activities.

Second-rate citizens

The net effect of all this is the creation of a second-rate citizen status for a large subgroup of the population who have done no harm to themselves or those around them, except to the whims of the reigning political orthodoxy. The concentration of the cannabis using culture within prisons in the US and the western world is analogous to the cultural cleansing that has been universally condemned when Serbia does it in Kosovo, when China does it in Tibet, and when Iraq does it to the Kurds. Why then does the world sit in silent complicity when the US commits this crime against humanity and even imposes it onto other sovereign states?

Sometimes people ask me why a long-time hemp and marijuana reform advocate such as myself is bringing the personal stories of these prisoners to light. The answer is simple: it’s all about people. Every time anyone is needlessly harmed by the drug war, everyone suffers. We can’t demand our own equal rights without also standing up for the human rights of others.

Pity the poor US citizen. The halls of justice, the hierarchy of legislatures, the executive officers, the bureaucratic agencies and the news media all conspire against their freedom. Fear and bigotry keep them from rising up against injustices, along with a false sense of security that it won’t happen to them personally.

It is amazing how much injustice a society is willing to endure, as long as it is visited upon someone else. This is comparable to the attitude of German citizens who stood by during the Nazi holocaust, some showing support and then later using claiming ignorance as an excuse to deny responsibility for their government’s actions.

It is our goal to deny Americans that comfort and luxury by forcing them to deal with the truth of their political morass, and to wake them up to the peril that they are facing.John Avery: `They basically killed my whole family.`

? Many more case histories are told in the new book, Shattered Lives: Portraits From America’s Drug War, by Chris Conrad, Mikki Norris and Virginia Resner. Creative Xpressions, PO Box 1716, El Cerrito CA 94530; web, web