In 1995, Will Foster was one of the millions of “otherwise law-abiding” marijuana users when his Oklahoma home was raided by police who accused him of being a drug dealer. A jury found him guilty and made him into a national symbol of the insanity of excessive penalties in drug cases by sentencing him to 93 years in prison. Foster suffered in prison while becoming a marijuana martyr icon. He won freedom earlier this year, and is now on parole, devoting himself full time to cannabis law reform. He gave Cannabis Culture this exclusive interview from his home in Northern California.
Why did you become involved with marijuana?
I used marijuana so I wouldn’t become a prescription hard drug addict. I had back surgery and arthritis, and had been in a lot of pain since 1990. I had been bedridden for six months, and the doctors were giving me strong painkillers such as Demerol, a synthetic heroin. This is the standard doctor’s treatment method- they tell you to take strong narcotics, and then try to raise a family and hold a job. It doesn’t work. The marijuana relieved my pain and my symptoms better than any drug I had tried.
When you started using medical marijuana, you were in new jersey. You moved to Oklahoma. Didn’t you know it was one of the worst drug war states?
I didn’t feel like I needed to know. I wasn’t a radical or a hippie. I had no idea how the war on drugs worked. I was making $300,000 a year in software business, had a five bedroom house, and three cars. I was a typical big consumer living the American dream, paying $100,000 a year in taxes. I didn’t think anybody would care if I used marijuana or not.
But somebody did care, and they came to take you down.
It woke me up to what the police and judges can do, and it made me wonder if I was in the America I had grown up to believe in. They had some informant who didn’t even know my name, so the cops got a “John Doe” search warrant that authorized them to look for meth, not marijuana. They talked about buying meth from me, and they described money and contraband that the informant had alleged existed, but none of it ever existed and none was found.
They alleged you were a drug dealer?
Yeah, like I need to deal drugs when I am making $100 an hour in a legal business! All they had was some loser informant that I never even met, and without any more than his word, 18 police used a battering ram on my door, held guns on my wife and stepdaughter, ransacked my house, and found $28 in cash.
They also found a grow room, right?
I had a small room that was only 25 square feet. I had five varieties: Northern Lights, pure Afghani, Heinous, Hawaiian Indica, and a Skunk. It wasn’t a production facility, it was medical breeding in multiple stages of growth with one plant per square foot, which is not a high yield.
I’ve never heard of a variety of marijuana called ‘heinous.’
It’s called that because it’s a really wicked Sativa. It hits you pretty good!
The police said you had a commercial grow room.
They said I had 70 plants. Of course they failed to understand that I had just finished cloning five minutes before they knocked down the door, ha ha! Marijuana wasn’t specified on the warrant, but the officer admitted that he was looking for marijuana, even though he was only supposed to be looking for meth. The drug war is really about marijuana. Most of the people they bust are busted for marijuana.
So they took you to jail and charged you. What else did they do?
They arrested my wife, and we had to call somebody close to us to get our daughter. Then the child welfare agency threatened to take her from us. It was humiliating- a very bad scene.
They also seized my shotguns, the $35,000 in my bank account, my computers, my personal records. They just come in and take your whole life. But I didn’t lay down for it. I filed against them for taking it before they ever filed forfeiture action against me trying to keep it. They lost.
What was going on with your criminal charges while you were trying to get your property back?
We were doing legal motions to show that the police had contrived a warrant and there was no credible evidence against me. In October, 1996, I announced that I was going to take it to a jury trial. The police didn’t like that. They followed me around, and then pulled up behind me while I was getting gas. They searched me and found nothing, then they called in the same undercovers who had been involved in the first arrest. They held me at the police station for 10 hours while they got a search warrant for my house, based on the reasoning that since I smelled like marijuana, and I didn’t have any in the car, it must be in my house.
They let themselves in my house; they were the only ones there. They claimed that they found a quarter pound of marijuana, and they arrested us again, making me spend more money on bail and attorneys for my wife and I. This case, in which they never produced the quarter pound they said they found and the charges were dismissed, cost me $25,000. I had to spend another $120,000 on the original case, which went to trial in January, 1997.
From what I’ve heard, the trial was a farce!
It lasted four days, with the right Honorable Judge Bill Beasley presiding. He’d been a judge for 20 years, and he made just about every ruling against me. He wouldn’t acknowledge that the search warrant was faulty. He wouldn’t allow evidence about my medical use. He wouldn’t allow evidence that would have impeached the police. He wouldn’t let me have my constitutional right to question the informant who had made these allegations against me. He wouldn’t let the jury see that the whole case was an example of lawbreaking, not on my part, but on the part of the system and some of the people in it. He didn’t want the jury to know all the facts.
You had hopes that the jury would be fair?
I had false hopes. They deliberated nine hours and came back with ‘guilty.’ Then there was immediate sentencing. The guidelines were two years to life for possession, with the same possible for the cultivation. They gave me 70 years for cultivation, and 20 years for possession of marijuana in the presence of a minor, and two years for possession with intent to distribute and one year for not being in possession of an Oklahoma marijuana tax stamp.
What was it like to sit there in court, convicted of nothing more than growing and selling pot, and hear that sentence?
I had smoked some herb before I went into court, so I was stoned. When I first heard them say 93 years, I actually laughed. Then I looked at my attorney and said, ‘I didn’t hear that right, did I?’ He was sitting there with his chin bouncing off the table, and I said, ‘Oh oh, I guess I did.’
I thought to myself: well, at least it shows they didn’t think I was selling because they could have given me two years to life for possession with intent to sell, and they only gave me two years. I also thought, well, it just shows you how bad the child raising is in Oklahoma.
I agree, there are some very backwards people in okieville, but it’s still hard to understand why the jurors were so vindictive.
I was doing the right thing in the wrong place. I was in the Bible Belt, which is full of self-righteous Baptists who believe in sending people to hell. The prosecutor portrayed me as a guy who donated money to pro-legalization organizations and made that seem like something that had to be punished.
After sentencing, what happened?
The marched me out of the courtroom and sent me to several prisons, including a private prison near Houston that was like gladiator school- many of the inmates were murderers, people who would be in the rest of their lives and then some.
My medical condition got worse, and they wouldn’t help me. All they did was give me Motrin until my legs were swollen up and I had nerve damage. They were just trying to cut costs, is all. They only got $47 a day from the state to house us, and medicine cut into their profits.
How did you adjust to being in prison?
I got down sometimes, but it wasn’t for lack of marijuana. I had access to pot in prison all the time. The guards sold it. In one prison the dealer’s house was a few blocks away and you could see it from the yard. The wardens were happy we had pot, because they knew it kept people calm and smiling. They said they’d rather have us do pot than make home-brew alcohol, because alcohol is not a drug you want in prison. Really, there was all kinds of illegal drugs in there. There were even heroin overdose deaths.
What kind of marijuana could you get in prison?
Most of it was Mexican Brown, bricked Mexican. They would sell it to you in the cap of a lip balm container. You could buy 15 caps for $50 and it took you about two caps to roll a thin joint. There weren’t many seeds, and for what it was, it got you high. It was a nice Sativa high, nice enough when you live in a cage.
Even though you had adequate marijuana supplies, you tried very hard to get out of prison.
I was always doing everything possible to get out, but I also needed a lot of support and encouragement. I was always talking to Keith Stroup at NORML, or whoever would take my calls! I have a lot of people to thank. My family did a lot to help me. I owe a lot to Ed and Jane Rosenthal. They had benefit events for me and raised thousands of dollars. They helped me integrate back into society after I got out of prison. A lot of other people that I never knew before have also helped me heal the hurt that the government put on me. All of these people are godsends. While I was in prison, their support gave me strength and I went on national television three times, and the country could see, hey, here’s a guy, maybe he’s not perfect but he’s not a criminal, and look what our tax money is doing to him and his family. The wardens didn’t like me speaking out but I was an assertive prisoner, always filing complaints. I was transferred seven times and was always studying in their law libraries. I decided never again to be powerless and uninformed.
The biggest obstacle I faced was Governor Keating, because he held the key to my release. I contacted him and didn’t get any response, and then I found out he was responding to people who had written him letters on my behalf by telling lies about my criminal record. He also told people that he wouldn’t let me out of prison because I would use my freedom to lobby for marijuana law reform. That really burned me, because I know the right to change laws and speak out are guaranteed by the constitution. I couldn’t believe he would say he could keep me in just to prevent me from being a political advocate. He actually said, ‘Mr. Foster has vowed to continue fighting against the drug laws; we can’t let him.’ I decided that if he was going to keep me in prison for speaking out, then I was really going to speak out, and I did.
I wrote Keating the first time I came up for parole, and he didn’t respond, so I tried a different tactic. I wrote the legislators and said, ‘Hey, you have a first time non-violent marijuana offender, and he’s gonna be locked up for at least 20 years, and how much is this gonna cost, and he used to be a productive citizen who pays taxes, so what gives?’
So did they give?
They were forced to by economic realities. The state of Oklahoma needed $18 million for the prison to operate to the end of the year. One of the legislators said, ‘You have 2600 nonviolent drug prisoners awaiting parole, and at 47$ a day, that’s our $18 million. So let’s release them.’
That happened this year, thanks to a good Democrat, and Keating was forced to parole me; he was forced to parole more people in three months than he had in his first seven years.
Were you surprised that you had finally received your freedom this way?
In 1998, the appeals court had reduced my sentence to 20 years because it was so excessive. So I knew I would be getting out in seven and a half anyway, which would have been around 2004. They gave me back 73 years of my life. But to get out this year, in April, was a miracle, and I am eternally thankful for everybody who helped me, and for not having to lose my entire life for something that was not a real crime.
How do you now feel about the ordeal that you were subjected to?
I lost a lot. I lost my family. My daughter was 11 when I went in and she’s 17 now. I can’t ever get back the years I lost with her, and I can’t make up for what they government did to all of us. My daughter didn’t want for anything before the arrest. She had her own bedroom, a television, and a swimming pool, and then after I got busted, my wife and her were forced to live in a tiny apartment on welfare. This drug war is promoted by people who claim to believe in family values, but they destroy families.
As a man who had been unfairly attacked, I had to figure out how to feel about the government and people who helped put me behind bars. I decided not to let anger and hate build up in me. I could sue them, but they hide under the color of law and use tax dollars to pay for their lawyers, and if I won, it would be the taxpayers who would pay the judgment to me, not the people who lied and framed me. If there is a god he will punish them; I am not going to worry about those people anymore.
What I am doing is my ‘adopt a green prisoner program,’ where I help people to avoid having to go through it alone. The way I look at, you become a drug war prisoner as soon as they arrest you. The whole ordeal of being arrested and having to defend yourself unites you with all other prisoners. What I do is help these people know how to deal with their lawyers, their friends and families, their emotions, and their own defense. I help them understand the law, and how to keep their lawyers from hurting them and selling them out. I offer expert witness testimony that educates juries about the lies police and prosecutors tell about marijuana growing and use.
All marijuana defendants are a family whose members are going through terrible suffering because of this stupid war, and I am going to be there for them, just like the Rosenthals and all my supporters were there for me. If you use marijuana, you’re in a ‘green’ family. Be a good family member: protect your brothers and sisters.