His one-bedroom flat, tucked into a sprawling Sandy Springs apartment complex, is furnished sparsely with a rocking chair, TV, computer, and a small picnic-style table that serves as both dining hutch and desk. The stark white static of the walls is interrupted only by three dream-catchers tacked to the Sheetrock. It’s the sort of spartan minimalism one might expect of someone who, until recently, had to content himself with staring at bare cinderblock.
“Watch out, you’re talking to a notorious ex-con.” Wrapped in a sharp Middle Georgia twang, Tucker’s voice betrays a suppressed smile. The slight 50-year-old Atlantan is hardly an intimidating figure, but he’s only half-kidding: nearly a decade ago he was convicted and sent to prison as a result of an infamous federal drug case that had once sparked national outrage for its rough interpretation of justice. In the spring of 1994, the Tucker family received lengthy prison sentences – 10 years for Steve, 16 years for his older brother Gary, and 10 years for his brother’s wife, Joanne – without possibility of parole for the curiously-worded federal crime of “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana.” Yet federal prosecutors never charged them with buying, selling, growing, transporting, or even possessing marijuana. An 18-month Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation had failed to turn up evidence directly connecting the Tuckers to even a single joint. Instead, they were locked away for selling the lamps, fertilizer, and gardening hardware from the small hydroponics supply shop Gary operated on Buford Highway that enabled their customers to grow pot, and refusing to rat on customers for the DEA.
In the mid-’90s, the Tucker case became a cause célèbre among libertarian activists and advocates of marijuana legalization, serving as an oft-cited cautionary example of the runaway powers of the federal government and the worst excesses of the War on Drugs. And yet, in the long years since, the Tucker case has faded from the radar: no TV cameras or microphones awaited Steve Tucker when he finally shed his prison uniform and came home. His mother, Doris Gore, would rather it remain that way – “I’m just scared to death of the Federal Government,” she says – but realizes at the same time that her son has an important story to tell. And he’s determined
to tell it; as he reads weekly accounts of Federal agents arresting licensed medical marijuana growers in California, he’s convinced he must speak out. “The Feds don’t like it when you buck them, but I’ll be damned if they break me,” Tucker says. “What kind of American would I be if I just kept my mouth shut?”
Steve Tucker’s nightmare began with the American dream, but one that had initially belonged to his older brother Gary, a balding Vietnam veteran with a house in the suburbs and a comfortable marriage. For nearly two decades, he and Steve had worked side-by-side installing commercial fire-control systems for a Buckhead company. But by the fall of 1987, Gary was 40 and he yearned to be his own boss. His choice of business was a store devoted to the pioneering technique of growing plants without soil or sunlight but only powerful lamps, chemical nutrients and a self-contained irrigation system: hydroponics. It was, Gary decided after some research, the “wave of the future.” Whose future, however, was the question. While hydroponics is highly effective at boosting vegetable growth, the systems are so costly as to be of practical use mostly to orchid breeders and, of course, marijuana growers lured by the promise of high yields produced in basements and attics, away from the prying eyes of authorities.
Gary wasn’t naive. He knew his customer-base would include few deep-pocketed “tomato enthusiasts”. But just as Wal-Mart doesn’t ask if their handgun ammunition will be used for target practice or bank hold-ups, the Tuckers decided to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“Look, we weren’t stupid,” Steve explains. “We figured a percentage of our customers were growing pot, but we had store rules that if anyone asked us about marijuana, we’d ask them to leave. What someone was planning to do with fertilizer or grow lights wasn’t our concern. Most of the stuff we were selling, you could buy at Home Depot. We had a legitimate business.”
Gary mortgaged his home in Gwinnett to finance the start-up, and in the spring of 1988 his business opened in a small shopping center on the edge of Norcross. It was the first hydroponics store in Georgia. The name Gary chose for his store – Southern Lights and Hydroponics – was a nod to a successful Mid-Atlantic chain called Northern Lights, which itself was named after a particularly potent strain of Alaskan weed. Steve, who had begun making child-support payments after his 10-year marriage ended in divorce, kept his regular job but helped out on weekends in his brother’s store. Gary’s wife Joanne, who worked for an insurance company, kept her husband’s books. To compensate for hydroponics’ somewhat questionable image, Gary wouldn’t allow High Times magazine, rolling papers, or Mr. Natural posters to be sold in the store, and any product or packaging that arrived bearing the familiar hemp-leaf silhouette would promptly be shipped back. Adding to Southern Lights’ respectability, the brothers were invited to install working hydroponics exhibits for the agriculture departments of Gwinnett Tech and a local high school. That’s not to say the Tucker brothers didn’t enjoy a joint now and again. Gary had first smoked during his tour in Vietnam, and Steve would get arrested in 1991 for growing his own stash at home. For that offense, he served six months in a county work-release program. “Getting busted was just bad luck,” Steve explains. “I used to smoke pot, but I wasn’t dealing. I never claimed to be 100-percent innocent, but I never conspired with anybody to do anything illegal.”
What the Tuckers didn’t know while they were preparing to launch Southern Lights was that, in Washington, the DEA was grappling with how to go after the booming number of marijuana growers who were moving their crops indoors to avoid aerial detection outdoors. A veteran agent had hit on the answer while flipping through an issue of High Times: focus the attack (called “Operation Green Merchant”) on stores selling grow lights and hydroponics gear, dozens of which advertised in the pages of head-shop magazines, to cut the burgeoning industry’s supply lines. Over the next two years the DEA subpoenaed UPS shipping records for stores across the country. Agents went undercover to browse hydroponics shops, follow up leads on pot farms, and casually ask everyone with long hair where one could buy seeds. The DEA’s aggressiveness showed how far the pendulum had swung since the heyday of the marijuana-reform movement a decade earlier: at the close of the 1970s, 11 states, following the advice of the American Medical Association and then-President Jimmy Carter, had decriminalized simple possession, and In 1981 the first bill to legalize medical-marijuana use was introduced in Congress. Its lead sponsor was a young, conservative Georgia lawmaker named Newt Gingrich. However, the tide swiftly turned under Ronald Reagan; even while the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was secretly helping Nicaraguan Contras smuggle vast amounts of cocaine into the president’s home state of California, the Administration was cracking down on domestic pot smokers, pushing for “zero tolerance” drug laws, and scolding Americans to “Just Say No.” By the end of the ’80s even socially progressive Oregon had again outlawed weed.
One month after the first President Bush pledged to escalate the War on Drugs in a September 5th, 1989 speech televised from the Oval Office, Operation Green Merchant went public. More than 200 indoor growing operations and 30 indoor-gardening shops and mail-order houses found themselves overrun with DEA agents. One high-profile businessman caught in that first wave of busts was Tom Alexander, the owner of a small hydroponics store in Oregon and publisher of Sensimilla Tips, considered by some marijuana advocates to be the thinking-man’s High Times. The DEA seized an estimated $55,000 in inventory from his store, but Alexander soon discovered it was even more costly to fight the action in court. A few months later, he was forced to shut down his magazine. Alexander had been financially ruined without ever being charged with a crime. It was an approach the Feds would repeat with indoor-gardening stores from coast to coast, including all six locations of Northern Lights.
So perhaps Gary Tucker shouldn’t have been surprised one day in the early weeks of 1992 when DEA Special Agent Kevin McLaughlin dropped by Southern Lights with an offer its owner wasn’t expected to refuse. The Feds would be much obliged, McLaughlin explained, if Gary would let them install hidden cameras in the store so they could spy on his customers. If he didn’t, there would be no effort spared in shutting down the store. Even though the conversation lasted probably all of five minutes, its outcome would set into motion forces the Tuckers could scarcely imagine. Gary later told his family that when he told McLaughlin to “get lost” the agent said “they’d get him somehow,” as Doris recalls.
Still disgusted by the idea of being pressured into being a government spy, Steve has never second-guessed his brother’s response.
“This isn’t Nazi Germany,” he says.
Sometime in late spring 1992, Gary Tucker realized there was a man sitting at a desk in an empty storefront across the street, and he was watching Southern Lights. Every time a car pulled into Gary’s store parking lot, the mystery man would scribble something into a pad. In May, Mike and Andrea Williams, customers who had become friends of Gary and Joanne, were busted by the DEA for using a hydroponics system to grow marijuana for Mike, who was terminally ill and smoked to combat the pain and nausea. From that point on events unfolded quickly. In July that year, McLaughlin and his partner Mark Hadaway paid a visit to Southern Lights’ store manager Jorene Deakle, accusing her and her husband of growing pot in their home. At the Tuckers’ sentencing hearing two years later, Deakle testified that the agents had threatened to file charges and seize her house unless she agreed to spy on her employer for them. She said she was frightened and agreed to give names of Southern Lights’ customers she thought might be growing weed. But the agents wouldn’t let up, she testified, until she accompanied them on a drive to point out a house where she “knew” marijuana was being grown. As they were driving, Deakle told the judge, she finally picked a house at random so they would leave her alone. The terrified Deakle was made to call the agents several times a week to feed tidbits of information, and the investigation gained momentum. Agents followed customers home, pawed through their garbage, subpoenaed their utility bills and trained sophisticated infrared-imaging devices on their houses, looking for concentrated
Then the busts began in earnest, as one green thumb after another was caught red-handed. Don Switlick, a convicted drug trafficker, was found growing 114 plants with hydroponics equipment purchased at Southern Lights. Agents discovered a grow room in the Dawsonville home of Thomas Fordham, a high-school friend of Gary’s. In September, Chuck Rothermel, who ran a car-customizing shop, was busted for a large crop of immature plants hidden in a nondescript warehouse he was renting in Forsyth County. Of course, not every raid paid off. In one case, agents searched a startled family’s home only to discover that the husband was using the incriminating high-wattage lamps in his tropical aquarium. In another, the suspect had never heard of the store and was only identified through his car, which his girlfriend had borrowed for the day. Jorene Deakle quit her job after suffering from what Steve describes as a “nervous breakdown”. The Tuckers would later find out she had also broken off contact with the DEA. By October, Gary had adopted what could only be called an unusual business strategy: warning everyone who came into his store that federal agents were watching the premises. “We felt it was our obligation,” Steve explains. Gary even complained to the local newspaper – somewhat naively, in retrospect – that the DEA was harassing customers buying legal products in an effort to drive him out of business. McLaughlin responded by occasionally dropping by the store to remind the Tuckers of his promise to shut them down, Steve says. “He was always real cocky. Joanne once put him down, so he told her he’d killed her dog, just to upset her.” Their mother begged Gary to quit the hydroponics trade. “I wanted them to get rid of that store, but Gary said they weren’t doing anything illegal,” Doris recalls. “He was adamant about keeping it open because he said it wasn’t his business what other people did with the equipment he sold.”
In December, Gary and Joanne went out for dinner and drinks with friend Mark Holmes, who kept steering the rambling margarita-fueled conversation back to the subject of recreational marijuana use – because he was wearing a wire for the DEA, which raided the Tuckers’ home and store the following spring, carrying away boxes of business records, address books, photographs and various other items. Southern Lights was padlocked, its entire inventory seized, and the administration began forfeiture proceedings against the couple’s house, bank accounts, new truck, and a boat. On June 18, 1993 – nearly two years after Operation Green Merchant arrived in Georgia – Gary, Steve and Joanne were arrested on federal drug conspiracy charges. All told, the Southern Lights investigation had uncovered more than 100 small hemp-growing operations across north Georgia and resulted in at least 30 arrests, which meant at least 30 potential prosecution witnesses, who had already claimed many of the available drug-defense attorneys in Atlanta by the time the Tuckers went shopping for legal counsel. However, Gary and Joanne happened to meet Nancy Lord, a trial lawyer and outspoken Libertarian activist who had been a 1992 vice-presidential candidate, at a community gathering. Lord, with only one major drug case on her resume, had just moved to Atlanta to practice under the tutelage of prominent defense attorney Tony Axam. Lord and Axam signed on to separately represent Joanne and Gary, respectively, and an acquaintance of Lord’s was hired for Steve. From the beginning, Lord was passionate about her assignment, appearing at press conferences and local forums to protest the “Big Brother tactics” of the federal drug war and attack the flimsiness of the Government’s case against the Tucker family. Certainly, to the layperson, the case would have appeared weak: despite 18 months of constant surveillance, boxes of confiscated documents, dozens of confidential informants, and the DEA’s own terrified mole managing the store, the agency had failed to come up with any physical evidence linking Gary to his customers’ crops. No marijuana – growing or dime-bagged – was found in Southern Lights, Gary’s house or Steve’s apartment. No paper trail of drug deals. No incriminating messages. No videotaped handoffs of suspicious packages. No blurry photos of Gary inspecting a customer’s harvest. No secretly recorded advice on the finer points of cultivating Maui Wowie. After a $1 million investigation, the only tangible exhibits the Feds had to show the jury were a set of precision scales that could have been used to weigh leafy contraband, and an old pipe that Gary and Joanne readily acknowledged they had used for smoking pot. The Government’s sole weapon seemed to be a lengthy list of freshly indicted former Southern Lights customers desperate to be useful enough on the witness stand for prosecutors to let them off lightly. The Tuckers and Lord, however, failed to fully appreciate that federal conspiracy law is far less concerned with what you do than with what you know.
“Conspiracy law has been the darling of federal prosecutors since the 1930s, because you don’t need direct evidence to score a conviction,” explains Axam, now recognized as one of Georgia’s top death-penalty lawyers. “The reason they use it is because they may have no hard, physical evidence, but with conspiracy, they can bring in hearsay, rumor, innuendo.”
Indeed, it’s tough to imagine how anyone gets acquitted considering the standard description of conspiracy law given to federal juries: “The fact that a defendant’s acts appear not to be illegal when viewed in isolation does not bar his conviction. An act innocent in nature and of no danger to the victim or society suffices if it furthers the criminal venture.”
Lord, who now specializes in patent law and FDA drug approval at her solo practice outside Las Vegas, admits she underestimated the far-reaching power of conspiracy law. “I was shocked that this little evidence could send someone up for 10 years,” she says.
Still, why were prosecutors willing to let admitted pot-growers and convicted drug dealers off easy so they could nail a tax-paying businessman who hadn’t been caught with any grass? Doris Gore is convinced there was an element of vengeance in the DEA’s pursuit of her sons because they had refused to roll over, to name names, to cop a plea. “They hated Gary because he wouldn’t do what they said,” she says. During the trial, Garfield Hammonds, then the Southeast’s top DEA official, announced to the press that Gary was no mere entrepreneur: “He’s a bum, he’s a parasite, he’s a master of deceit, he’s a marijuana czar.” (Hammonds, who now sits on the state Board of Pardons and Parole, didn’t return phone calls for this article.) It didn’t help that Joanne had followed Lord’s lead in publicly baiting her accusers whenever the chance arose. “My husband is a political POW,” she told one reporter. “We’re fighting a political war, not a drug war.” Steve Tucker still believes he and Joanne were charged primarily as added leverage against Gary; when they wouldn’t give him up, the Government simply steamrolled them too.
Axam, who’s since represented such high-profile defendants as Ray Lewis and Jamil Al-Amin, won’t discuss the particulars of the Tuckers’ defense, but he vividly recalls the Feds’ take-no-prisoners determination. “The Government had a clear policy that it didn’t want hydroponics stores in business,” he says. “If it looks long and hard enough at any industry it doesn’t like, it can find those connections.”
United States v. Gary Tucker et al. scheduled for November 1993 in Federal court got off to a spectacularly inauspicious start. On the morning of jury selection, activists with the Fully Informed Jury Association – a radical libertarian group that believes juries should be empowered to dismiss charges and reject unjust laws – were handing out flyers to everyone entering the Russell Federal Building, effectively disqualifying an entire day’s jury pool for the Northern District of Georgia. When Chief Judge William O’Kelly, who was to preside over the trial, was told Lord had been seen outside exchanging pleasantries with one of the activists, he was livid. Their courtroom relationship went downhill from there.
Resuming the first week of January 1994, the trial lasted four days. Assistant US Attorney James Harper oversaw a parade of a dozen or so nervous plea-bargain witnesses, some of whom testified that Gary – and to a lesser extent, Steve and Joanne – had given them hemp-growing tips; several claimed Gary had bought pot from them or traded hydroponics equipment for high-end herb. One said he’d glimpsed a freezer crammed with weed in the couple’s garage. Another stated Gary offered to look after his buds while he was out of town. A couple said Gary had privately confirmed that the vast majority of his customers were breaking the law. The defense, spearheaded by Lord, scored too few points to overcome the damage. One witness stated that he didn’t believe the Tuckers had done anything illegal. Another recalled bragging about his cannabis garden only to have Gary tell him to get rid of it. Several acknowledged that they hoped their testimony would spare them prison time.
One former Southern Lights customer, a 66-year-old ex-con we’ll call “Bob” (who spoke on condition he not be named) now says DEA agents tried to coax him into claiming the Tuckers were growing pot at their house, but stopped short of asking him to lie. “‘You help us and we’ll help you,’ is how they put it,” he explains. When asked to wear a wire into the store, Bob agreed – then fled the state rather than aid an investigation he believed was intent on “railroading” the business owners. Even though he eventually testified after police tracked him down, Bob received a four-year sentence rather than the 18-month stretch he’d initially been offered. “I disappointed [the prosecutors]because I didn’t say what they wanted me to,” he says. “To my knowledge, the Tuckers didn’t do anything other than sell chemicals and lights – except for indulging [in personal pot use].”
Steve’s own years behind bars have taught him not to be shocked at what someone might say on the witness stand. “I was in prison with people who’d swear their own mother was Hitler if it would save their skin,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ll never have another close friend. I’ll never be able to trust anyone that way, now that I’ve seen what people will do to protect their own freedom.” While he concedes that he can’t speak for his brother’s actions, Steve insists he never offeredgrowing advice or swapped weed with customers, although he did share a joint on occasion.
Nancy Lord continued to criticize the DEA in court, pointedly suggesting that witnesses had been coerced to lie. When the judge warned her that Agent McLaughlin wasn’t the one on trial, Lord shot back that “he should be.” O’Kelly cited her for contempt. “If I go to jail, I go to jail,” she shrugged.
“Nancy had some balls,” Steve recalls, laughing. “She stood up to that judge.” But Lord now reflects that her confrontational style didn’t serve her clients well, a point made painfully clear when O’Kelly told her he believed Joanne likely would have been acquitted if she’d been defended in a more professional manner. “My problem was that I was too angry,” Lord says. “I wanted to make a political statement – to argue against the drug war – and I thought the jury would go along with me. Now, I’d probably urge the Tuckers to re-examine taking a plea agreement.” The trial’s low point came when Joanne took the stand in her own defense. The same woman who’d given tough-talking speeches defending her family and denouncing government scare tactics suddenly sounded uncertain and evasive when confronted by prosecutors. “Joanne fell apart on the stand,” Lord says. “It really was sad to watch.”
First taking effect in 1989, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, combined with the elimination of federal parole, ensure that even the most casual recreational drug user can be kept locked up for many long years while paying his debt to society. Bruce Harvey, Georgia’s leading drug defense attorney, considers mandatory-minimum sentencing to be part of a collection of immoral federal laws with a combined impact of “nothing more than political genocide on a whole group of people – and it’s getting worse.” Because a federal drug offender’s punishment is now effectively determined by the charges, rather than a judge’s experienced sense of justice, sentencing power lies in the hands of prosecutor where it’s frequently wielded to compel defendants to make some agent’s job easier.
Before the trial began, says Steve, he “was offered 24 months instead of 10 years if I’d testify against Gary. When I said no, they asked me to testify against Joanne. I mean, my brother or my brother’s wife, what’s the difference?” Even after the jury had returned guilty verdicts against all three Tuckers, the prosecutors offered Steve one last deal: give up the names of any pot-growers who had escaped their dragnet and get off with only two years. “I figure I’m a man – I make my own decisions, and I’m not going to tear someone else down to spare myself some time. I said, ‘I’ll do my 10 years.’”
The way the Tuckers arrived at that sentencing threshold, however, involved a stunning use of statutory sleight-of-hand. When the DEA would bust a pot farm, each plant – from the tiniest seedling up to mature bushes in full flower – would count as one kilogram of marijuana. Then the agents would break out the calculators: assume an annual yield of five crops, multiply by the projected time the suspect had been growing, add in the number of actual plants confiscated, convert it to kilos and voila! – all equaling one serious prison sentence. In the Southern Lights case, for instance, one customer was caught growing 80 actual plants that, after a run-in with the DEA’s conversion chart, blossomed into an “estimated” 1,200 plants. (Speaking of people “manufacturing marijuana”!) The Tuckers had been charged in relation to 1,000 kilos consisting of mostly theoretical weed, exactly the amount needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Gary received an additional six years for “masterminding” the criminal enterprise. “To this day, we don’t know whose plants we were charged with,” Steve says. Not that it mattered. Whomever they belonged to, there were plenty. As McLaughlin explained to the judge, “I stopped computing at 16,000 plants.”
The one bright spot in the trial seemed to be the jury’s decision to deny the Federal forfeiture of Gary and Joanne’s house, presumably because of the absence of evidence that it was paid for with drug money. But Nancy Lord says the Government’s final dirty trick came when the DEA agreed to drop its claim to the property, only to have the home seized by the state instead.
Steve and Gary’s introduction to “Club Fed” was a temporary stay with some of the same guys who’d snitched on them at the minimum-security prison camp next to the notorious Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. “What you see in the movies about prisons is pretty much true about the Atlanta Pen,” Steve says. After a few months, they were transferred to Alabama, a trip Steve recalls with disbelief. “When I left the Atlanta Prison Camp, they gave me $75 and a set of street clothes; I took a cab, a bus and another cab, and reported to my new prison – alone. If they could trust me to do that, obviously I’m not the kind of guy who needs to be in prison.”
Even as they settled into the cell they shared at Talladega Federal Correctional Institute, Gary and Steve’s convictions were being condemned in newsletters and described in magazine articles, discussed at political forums and featured in a CNN special on TV. The family was also the subject of a chapter in the 1998 book Shattered Lives: Portraits From America’s Drug War. Co-author Mikki Norris of El Cerrito, California, says the Tuckers’ case was one of the more disturbing she studied. “It made me very paranoid to think that you could be convicted of completing a drug transaction without even knowing you were part of it,” she says.
As the months then years wore on and the media furor eventually died down, the brothers fell into the mind-numbing routine of prison life. To keep busy, Steve edited the inmate-produced newspaper Prose and Cons and counted out his time: 54 days off each year for good behavior, and one year off for completing a voluntary drug-rehab course. “You work, you eat, you read – prison’s a lot like a small town,” he says. “I read over 600 novels, mostly psycho-thrillers, and I wrote a few, too.” But it wasn’t all so dull. In October 1995, much of the federal inmate population was following the progress of a congressional bill to reduce the penalties for crack possession retroactively (for many already serving time). One morning, news came that the bill had failed and a foreboding silence fell over the prison the rest of the day. That evening, Steve says, word spread throughout the cafeteria that a California prison was rioting in protest of the vote in Washington. A few minutes later, the whole place erupted. “We feared for our lives that night,” Steve says. “The inmates tore that prison to hell. It was really harrowing.” Later, they found out the rumor about the California prison had been a hoax. Instead, it was the Talladega riot – a 1995 prisoner revolt at Talladega prison in Alabama that caused $3 million in damages and left several buildings burned, touching off at least three similar episodes in
That same year, the US Sentencing Commission downgraded the conversion weight for a marijuana plant from 1 kilo to 100 grams. Gary petitioned to have his sentence reduced accordingly, but Steve didn’t file his own request out of concern it might somehow hurt his brother’s chances. Three years later, in 1998, Judge O’Kelly reduced Gary’s sentence to 10 years. In the end, however, it didn’t make any difference. Gary died of cancer five days after Steve was released from the halfway house where he’d spent the last few months of his sentence. Steve was able to see his brother toward the end, but Joanne – who’d been transferred from a Connecticut woman’s prison to a Macon halfway house – wasn’t allowed to visit her husband in the week before he died. Though Gary had been sick for a nearly a year, prison officials refused to take his illness seriously until it was too late, his mother says. “They’d give him an aspirin and send him back to his cell until he’d pass out, and then they’d take him to the hospital.” The diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer closely associated with exposure to Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide used in Vietnam. It would seem Gary’s government had succeeded in killing him
in the end.
Even though Steve Tucker has completed his prison sentence and returned to his old job, he wouldn’t call himself a free man. Not when he has to call in every morning for the next four years so a recorded message can tell him whether he’s been randomly selected to pee in a cup that day. Not since he had to give up his lifelong pastime of hunting because he can never again hold a gun. Not after he’s seen politicians get elected on the promise to pass more draconian drug laws, and knowing he’s forever lost his right to vote. When Steve brought his son and daughter, in their mid-teens, to spend Thanksgiving with his mother – for the first time in nearly a decade – in Cochran, a half-hour south of Macon, he was required to seek written approval from his probation officer weeks in advance of the visit.
“When I got out, I had to learn my way around Atlanta again, but I went back to work like I’d never left; there was no adjustment problem,” he says. “The hardest part is the probation, because you have to get permission to do just about everything.” In prison, Steve met guys who told him they had violated their probation on purpose because another 16 months in the big house was better than three more years of having probation officers always looking over your shoulder, waiting for you to fuck up.
What made the biggest impression on Steve was how many inmates were much like himself: small-time non-violent offenders serving big-time sentences for reasons that made little sense. “Even if I was guilty, 10 years seems excessive when there were bank robbers in there for two or three years, and I got 10 years for selling light bulbs,” he says. “This drug war forced two little kids to grow up without their dad and my ex-wife to go without child-support for eight years, and for what? I’m not saying I’m above the law, but I know in my heart I’m not the type of person who needed to be in prison.” And yet, once there, the outrageousness of his circumstances blended into a background of statistics. He simply became another of the anonymous drug offenders who make up 57 percent of all federal inmates.
If anything, the War on Drugs has only built momentum through the political backing of such powerful interest groups as prison guard unions; the billion-dollar drug-testing industry; private prison construction and management companies; and, of course, the DEA, which commands a $1.8-billion budget and has more than tripled the number of special agents on its payroll in the past 30 years. Over the last decade, drug convictions have accounted for more than 80 percent of the growth of the federal prison population.
So it’s hardly surprising that as Steve languished in prison and the drug war was amassing new victims, Steve was essentially forgotten. His sister-in-law, Joanne, now remarried and relocated, wants to forget as well. Declining to be interviewed, she explains: “Digging up something from 10 years ago isn’t going to help anything now.”
Trying to piece together a ruined life takes a long time. But there’s a freedom that comes with starting over, and Steve has his own second act planned: he’s looking for a literary agent to publish one of the novels he wrote in prison, a mystery set in a town modeled loosely on Cochran. “People ask me if I’m going to write about everything I’ve been through, but I don’t think so,” he says wistfully. “Who wants to read about another guy who got busted for pot?”