The Terror War on Drugs
If Steve Treleaven had a dollar for every time a fellow inmate had told him that there was no way he could have received a 20-year sentence just for growing some pot on his land, he would be a rich man. And if he had another dollar for every time that he had been told he would never end up doing the whole sentence, he could be running for governor. Instead, he is sitting alone in the visiting room of the shiny, new U.S. penitentiary in Atwater, about 300 miles north of where he spent a carefree childhood in Van Nuys and a few million light-years away from the life he had now hoped to be living.
In his letters out, he describes himself as POW number 08656023. Like tens of thousands of others across the country, he is a prisoner in the war on drugs, a war that has been widened over the last few months so that it is now part of a more popular and comprehensible war on terrorism. Any regular television watcher is now familiar with the commercials in which contrite young people admit to having helped to kill a judge or a policeman because, by using drugs, they contributed to the funding of international terrorism.
The ads, produced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, suggest that any American buying drugs could end up financing terrorists, "whether you're shooting heroin, snorting cocaine, taking Ecstasy or sharing a joint in your friend's back yard." The government Web site, which displays the campaign and the reasons behind it, explains the new policy thus: "As America recovers from the loss and destruction of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, government officials and policymakers are focusing on the link between terror and drug trafficking."
The logic may seem a little wobbly, but this is not a story where logic plays a leading role. Just when it seemed that judicial attitudes toward marijuana and cases like Steve Treleaven's might be changing and when many European countries are relaxing cannabis laws, the keys in the doors of places like Atwater are being given another twist. And terrorism is being used as an excuse for keeping those doors locked.
The 46-year-old Treleaven probably went to school or hung out with or sold some weed to readers of this publication. They may remember a handsome, easygoing young man with piercing blue eyes and thick wavy dark hair who graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1974 and who was always up for any good times going in the Valley. "Everyone smoked pot back then, it was so easy and non-threatening," says Treleaven as he settles down for what will be a three-hour conversation. Back then, it seemed only a matter of time before marijuana would become legal, he says, and he found that selling weed to his circle of friends was an easy way of making money. "Then, somewhere along the line, the country decided it was a major offense."
In fact, Treleaven's first brush with the law came in 1981 when he was busted for possession. It was a warning shot. He was sentenced to a series of weekend detentions, and concluded that there were smarter ways to live his life and simpler places than L.A. to do so. He loved the wild and skiing, and was planning to move to Colorado when a side trip to see a friend in Idaho made him realize he could achieve his own private dream right there. He had already done some construction work, and once there started out doing odd jobs and eventually formed his own small company. He met a woman, Mollie, settled down in Sandpoint with her, and had a son. It was in many ways the perfect life. He even became that archetype of suburban normality: the local kids' soccer coach. "It was the greatest fun I had in my life," he says.
But Treleaven had a brother on whom the sun was not shining so brightly. A Vietnam veteran, his brother had acquired a heavy drug habit and along with it many attendant problems. He had been diagnosed HIV positive and was a sick man. His buddies down in Arizona, where he was then living, had told him that one way to deal with the pains and the eating difficulties associated with the medicines he was taking for his illness was to smoke marijuana. He remembered that little brother Steve knew all about that world, and contacted him to ask if he could help out.
As it happened, Treleaven's brother's request coincided with a friend in Idaho suggesting that he and Treleaven grow some weed together in the woods. As a builder, Treleaven could construct a shed which they would conceal underground and in which they would grow the marijuana. It worked out fine. Treleaven sent some of his share of the weed to his brother, who smoked it, recovered his appetite and regained his health. His brother also supplied others who had the same illness, in what was a sort of unofficial medical-marijuana club.
Not that Treleaven is suggesting that he was just a postmodern version of Mother Teresa administering to the sick. "I'm not trying to say that I was doing something I didn't know was wrong," says Treleaven, dressed in his beige prison jump suit. "But I never in a million years thought anyone could do this time for growing pot." He knew what happened to people who grew pot on their land in Idaho, because the local papers wrote about them periodically; they would spend a year or so inside if they were unlucky.
But Steve Treleaven was very unlucky. One of the teenagers who had done some wood-chopping work on his land told his father, a deputy sheriff, about his boss. The sheriff looked up Treleaven's record, spotted that conviction back in 1981, and from there it was downhill all the way to the federal court. Instead of the case being dealt with at a state level, Treleaven's became a federal target as part of the expanding war on drugs, and he entered the world of the mandatory minimum sentence.
Now the method of production that Treleaven and his two friends had chosen was growing thousands of very small plants, each weighing about 7 grams. But, by the federal method of calculating, each plant is assessed, regardless of its true weight, at 1,000 grams. Treleaven was thus charged with producing 8,000 pounds of marijuana when, in fact, he personally could have been responsible for only just under 27 pounds. This is when the mandatory minimums really kick in. As a "manufacturer" of the notional but nonexistent 8,000 pounds, he was jailed for 10 years. Because of his 1981 possession conviction, the mandatory minimum of 10 years was doubled, and he was jailed for 20 years.
His brother, deprived of his supply, speedily lost 50 pounds, became confined to a wheelchair, and was dead within the year.
I HEARD ABOUT TRELEAVEN'S CASE FROM AN organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which campaigns against the laws that have played such a role in locking up the estimated 470,000 people now behind bars for drug offenses. Some of the most egregious cases may sound familiar: Douglas Gray was jailed for life in July 1992 for buying a pound of marijuana for himself and friends from a local criminal who had been paid $100 by the local police in Decatur, Alabama, to work as an informer. A Vietnam vet, Gray had not been in trouble with the police for 13 years and had never committed any offenses serious enough for jail. Because the amount of marijuana he purchased was enough to make him a dealer, he was jailed for life without parole. John Casali from Humboldt County, California, was arrested in 1992 for growing marijuana. It was his first offense, but he was jailed for 10 years, the mandatory minimum. An apologetic judge told him: "This is one of the most difficult sentencings I've had . . . I would like nothing better than to give you a lower sentence."
Atwater opened last January. It lies at the end of a side road past some stables, and visitors are greeted with a big color photo of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, under whose auspices it operates. It was one of a cluster of prisons in California commissioned during the boom time in the '90s when penitentiaries were springing up on the theory that "If you build them, they will be convicted." It is a high-security establishment. Treleaven, who taught construction work to inmates without any skills, is now employed cleaning the showers.
"I love this country," said Treleaven, who talks with pride about his son who is now a college soccer star, "but this government just sucks, it's corrupt, it's evil. Maybe I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I think there may be a lot of big money from the alcohol companies behind the status quo. And they've built a lot of new prisons, and they have to keep them full. About 90 percent of all drugs arrests are for marijuana, so if they decriminalize it they knock the legs out of the war on drugs. Some of the sentences are just insane, people doing life for marijuana. I have met one Argentinian who is doing 500 years for money laundering."
Treleaven believes that many politicians privately oppose the punitive nature of marijuana laws, "but no one wants to stand up and say it in case they're accused of being soft on drugs." Now that the drug war has been linked to Osama bin Laden, he believes that politicians who could bring about change will be even less likely to do so. The ads that link marijuana use to support for terrorism "make my blood boil," he says. "One hundred years from now they're going to look back and say, 'What the hell were these people thinking?' But we've got to live through it all."
Here is the great conundrum. Over the last few weeks, I have smelled the familiar whiff of marijuana smoke during concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater, while strolling down the Venice boardwalk, and while conducting a vox pop in East L.A., often within sniffing distance of the police. It seems to be such a common activity that many people today obviously feel that the risks of arrest are few. Yet in 2000, there were 734,498 marijuana-related arrests nationwide 646,042 of them for simple possession out of a total of 1,579,566 drugs arrests of all kinds, the highest ever recorded by the FBI.
And there are now more prisoners in American jails for drug offenses than in the entire jail systems of Western Europe combined. Last year, the U.S. spent $40 billion in the war against drugs, a 40-fold increase since 1980. The effect of this "war" has been minimal in terms of combating drug usage and winning the battle of public opinion. More than a third of Americans 35 percent over the age of 11 have tried marijuana, and an estimated 11 million say that they are current users. Those who have experienced the effects of the "war" firsthand say that many people are unaware of how many are affected by it. In Seattle, Nora Callahan helps to run the November Coalition, which she founded with another woman who, like herself, had a brother jailed for a long time in prison on a drug offense.
"This is a horrible, inhumane war," said Callahan. "They say drugs fund the terrorists. Gasoline funds the terrorists." She said that the public was still ill-informed about the effects of the law. "As soon as we show them people's stories, they say, 'That could be my brother.' People feel shame at the policy . . . Some of the conservatives here get angrier than the hippies, it's the overreach of government they don't like, and these are mainly people who don't think about drugs much until they pick up their Prozac prescription. There is a lot of anger about the hypocrisy."
JULIE STEWART, THE PRESIDENT OF FAMM, started the organization a decade ago after her brother was jailed for five years for growing marijuana. "These are ordinary people given extraordinary sentences," said Stewart. "I was naive enough to think that once legislators knew what was happening, they would undo the laws. That didn't happen, but the tide is beginning to turn in Congress." Stewart said that whenever there is a "crime du jour," Congress responds with severe penalties, whether it's piracy in 1790 or drugs today.
"There is a demonization of drug offenders in the U.S., but it's not the kingpins doing the hard time, it's these low-level offenses," said Monica Pratt of FAMM. "These laws make it very simple to get a very, very long sentence. And the people that could make a difference don't."
The Bush-appointed drug czar, John L. Walters, favors jail over rehabilitation for drug users and opposes medical-marijuana use. He believes that the problem has been exaggerated: "What really drives the battle against law enforcement and punishment is not a commitment to treatment, but the widely held view that we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs, that drug and other criminal sentences are too long and harsh, and the criminal-justice system is unjustly punishing young black men. These are among the great urban myths of our time."
Now a group of Americans who face imprisonment here for marijuana offenses are seeking political asylum in Canada, having headed for the nearest foreign border and finding that Vancouver may be just their kind of town. They are claiming asylum status on the grounds that they have "genuine fears of persecution" in their own country. Whether they succeed in this strategy is a moot point, but what is interesting is that the Canadian authorities have decided to hear their arguments and allow them their day in court, permitting them to remain in Canada until hearings next spring.
One of those seeking asylum is Renee Boje, whom the U.S. wishes to extradite to stand trial for cultivating cannabis plants at the home of Todd McCormick, the L.A. medical-marijuana activist. She told AlterNet from her home in Vancouver: "I'm a member of a class of society they're trying to oppress or wipe out completely." If convicted down in L.A., she faces the possibility of 10 years inside, and the length of that sentence is part of her plea that she would face "persecution" if she were to return south of the border. "There are hundreds of Americans here because they are being persecuted by their own government," she said.
Canada has recently moved to soften penalties for marijuana possession, reflecting trends across Europe. In the United Kingdom, David Blunkett, a home secretary certainly not known for his liberal views, surprised many when he reclassified cannabis as a less harmful drug and relaxed the laws earlier this year, introducing a system whereby police officers would no longer routinely arrest those found in possession but would adopt a "seize and warn" policy. Arrests would occur only if a child was involved or a "flagrant disregard for the law" was shown such as blowing the smoke in an officer's face.
Meanwhile, people like Steve Treleaven must carry on with their sentences. "I was a young man when I got arrested," says Treleaven, who may have already lost many years and much hair from the top of his head, but who has managed to remain fit and sharp in mind and body by running 30 miles a week round the quarter-mile prison track and by his habit of voraciously reading everything from history books to his weekly Nation. "I was an old man within a year, so what I try and do now is make sure that when I get out, I'm as young as I can be." What would make him happiest, one feels, would be to see his son play soccer. Like many who are denied a chance to shout their case from the ramparts, he talks almost nonstop, so the visit is soon over, an event signaled by that familiar international soundtrack of incarceration, the jangling of keys.
When I previously lived in California, up north in San Anselmo back in the early '70s, I remember hearing on KSAN-FM a song from the first album of an up-and-coming young singer-songwriter from Chicago called John Prine. It was called "The Illegal Smile" "It don't cost very much and it lasts a long while/Will you please tell the man I didn't kill anyone/I just want to have me some fun." I don't think any of us listening then thought that, three decades later, people like Steve Treleaven would be sitting in cells in California serving the kind of sentences you get for killing someone.