Drugs

'I'm Going to Prison for Working at a Pot Shop That Was Legal in My State'

The owner of the company has two young children and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/maciej

Robert Duncan checked himself into prison on Monday for working at a medical cannabis dispensary in Northern California. Duncan, 31, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, went to a Cal State university, and lived in Los Angeles for a time before moving to Northern California to manage pot growing operations at a medical dispensary collective.

Then, in October 2011, federal agents working for the Drug Enforcement Agency raided Duncan’s home. According to an article in Huffington Post, which includes a personal letter from Duncan, a U.S. attorney named Benjamin Wagner indicted Duncan and other people involved in the dispensary collective on the grounds that it had grown too large. According to Duncan's letter, the owner of the company, who has two young children, was sentenced to five years in prison. "The other co-defendant got three and a half and is having to sell his house. Now that all three of us are sentenced, the case is pretty much closed."

“Despite California’s struggle with prison overcrowding, and despite new federal guidelines that say size should no longer be considered in prosecution decisions, Duncan was sentenced to two years in prison.”

Medical marijuana has been legal according to California laws for more than 17 years, but that hasn’t stopped the federal government from coming down hard on the state’s pot operations. DEA renewed its crackdown efforts in the Golden State in 2011, and Duncan is one of many victims. 

Before he was incarcerated, Huffington Post asked Duncan what he would want to tell the president and his administration in case they happened upon the interview.

“It’s a lot bigger than me and there’s a lot more people affected by this,” he said. “Obviously it’s not too late to do something different and take bigger steps in the direction the U.S. wants us to go; if you look at the polls a majority of people are for legalization or decriminalization. ... Just do what the people want to do, that's what they’re elected to do.”

Duncan added that if for some reason a pot dispensary was a federal issue, the businesses could be closed “but there’s no need to send people in this situation to prison.”

According to the FBI, 43.3% of arrests for possession were for marijuana in 2011. Nearly one in eight U.S. drug prisoners are behind bars for pot, and keeping those people in jail costs the U.S. more than $1 billion every year according to 2007 estimates.

The Obama administration has vowed not to interfere with recreationally legal marijuana operations in Colorado and Washington, and President Obama himself has said the plant is safer than alcohol, so why are people are still being arrested for involvement in medical marijuana businesses in states where they are legal?

"It boils down to the feds wanting to make an example out of us," Duncan wrote. "There’s no rhyme or reason, no formulas, like the feds saying you have too many patients or you have too many profit dollars. And actually, we really weren’t making that much money because we were just reinvesting into the company. And I didn’t see any of that anyways. I just had a modest salary. President Obama saying that marijuana is like a vice similar to alcohol, maybe there’s a bigger strategy there and he’s trying to ramp up for a bigger policy change. But the snapshot of right now—it couldn’t be a more insulting slap in the face."

April M. Short is the editor in chief of Reset. She previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort