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10 of the Harshest Sentences for Pot in the U.S.

The punishments for pot do not fit the crime.

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Michele admitted that her dead brother had probably been involved in the grow, but she and the rest of her family claimed to be entirely in the dark about the operation. Despite lack of physical evidence (save for one fingerprint on a piece of portable equipment), the words of Daniels and Tapley alone were enough to take them to court. For their cooperation, Daniels was sentenced five years while Tapley got two and a half. Michele is serving 10 years; Sheri is serving six and a half, and John is doing 58. John Avery's wife, Eddie, has become the caretaker for Sheri’s two sons and Michele’s disabled daughter. “They basically killed my whole family,” John Avery wrote. “They took me and my daughters away from their mother, my wife, and their children, my grandchildren.”

7. Bryan Epis

The first California medical marijuana provider to be arrested and convicted for growing pot, Bryan Epis is a bit of a martyr in the medical marijuana movement. Epis’ saga began in 1997, when police arrested him for growing more than 100 marijuana plants in the basement of his Chicago home. Epis testified that he was growing pot for himself and four other patients and sending the excess to a medical cannabis buyers’ club. A jury found him guilty of growing more than 100 plants, as well as conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 plants.
He was given a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, toughened in part by his proximity to a local high school. After two years in federal prison, the 9th US Court Circuit granted Epis freedom pending the resolution of Raich v. Gonzalez, which actually turned out to be more bad news. The US Supreme Court ruled that federal drug prohibition trumps state medical pot laws. In 2007, Epis was resentenced to 10 years, but was free pending appeal on $500,000 bail. In 2010, he went back to prison, and this summer, his sentence was reduced to 90 months. But there was a catch: Epis cannot advocate for marijuana policy reform during his sentence or his first 10 years of freedom, when he will be on “supervised release.”
8. The Young Family
Clyde and Patricia Young were living with their eight children in Alabama near the border of Mississippi, surrounded by the property of wealthy businessman J.P. Altmire, when Altmire decided he wanted their land. When the Youngs refused to sell, he wrote 36 letters to lawyers, prosecutors and the local sheriff calling the family “troublemakers.” In August 1988, the Young's eldest son was arrested for cultivating marijuana on Altmire property. Authorities tore up the Young’s home with pickshovels, and police seized all the money they had, including the children’s piggy banks and a 90-year-old uncle’s social security check. They did not find any drugs.
A year later, police raided the home again, this time arresting the entire family. The Youngs learned at indictment that drug residue, a scale and a notebook of names and amounts of money were uncovered in a 1986 raid on Clyde Young's mother’s hunt club. At trial, the judge and Altmire’s former lawyer and friend, Charles Butler, did not allow the defense to admit as evidence the letters Altmire sent to local authorities. The prosecution’s witnesses included, as with many cases, criminals who may have been implicating others to reduce their own sentences. Clyde and Patricia, as well as four of their children, were found guilty of possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana in an ongoing criminal enterprise. Clyde got 26 years; Patricia got 24; and their four children received sentences ranging from three to 15 years. Patricia and the four children have since been released, but Clyde is still serving his time.
9. James Cox
James Cox suffered from testicular cancer that had spread to his stomach, and marijuana helped not only increase his appetite, but also helped him to cope with the pain. Addicted to Demerol after 15 years on the medication, he found that marijuana helped him to take less of the narcotic and still manage his chronic pain. In the late ‘80s, police discovered his cannabis garden while investigating an attempted burglary at his home. James was sentenced to 15 years, his wife to five. Authorities also confiscated the home he and his wife, Pat, had inherited from her mother. The future looked so grim the couple attempted suicide while out on bond. Cox’s sentence was eventually given a stay, but when Cox was arrested for growing marijuana again, he was sent back to jail. In 1995, he wrote that being incarcerated led to “constant discomfort” he believed to be “a direct result of not having the medical benefits of marijuana.” His stomach “deteriorated to the point where I could not eat anything due to incurable bleeding ulcers.” After almost five years in prison, Cox was finally released on parole.
10. John Knock

John Knock received two life sentences plus 20 years behind bars for his alleged involvement in marijuana trafficking from Pakistan and Lebanon to the United States and Canada in the mid-'90s. Knock was living in Hawaii when he was extradited to Florida, a state in which he had never lived, to face charges related to a reverse sting because of his connection to an indicted San Francisco smuggler. The only evidence against him was the testimony of informants, and yet Knock is on track to die behind bars.

While a life sentence for marijuana may seem incredibly rare, it has been handed to multiple nonviolent offenders. (For more information, visit www.lifeforpot.com.) In 1992, Mark Young received a life sentence for playing the role of middleman in a large pot sale. That same year, Larry Jackson, a man with a long rap sheet of small-time, nonviolent offenses, received a life sentence for a minuscule amount of pot -- 1/100th of a gram -- and a tiny bit of cocaine. As Eric Schlosser wrote in Reefer Madness, Oklahoma has some of the harshest punishments for pot, but it is not the only state handing down life sentences for the plant: