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The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back | The Nation

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The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back

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Death of a Marijuana Caregiver

Kristin Flor/Activist

In 2011, the DEA raided medical marijuana growers and dispensaries across Montana. My dad, Richard Flor, one of the partners of Montana Cannabis, was arrested. Medical marijuana was legal under state law at the time, but federal laws dictated that he be sentenced to five years in prison.

A Vietnam vet with numerous health problems, my dad was supposed to be sent to a medical facility, but he never made it. Instead, he sat in general population inside a private prison for four months, his health rapidly deteriorating. He suffered from broken bones, severe stomach pain, unstable blood sugar and much more. Prison staff ignored most of his cries for help, accusing him of faking his symptoms. It was only when he was being transported from one facility to the next and suffered a major heart attack that he was rushed to the hospital.

Doctors said he would not live. With my mother also arrested and incarcerated, it was up to me to take my dad off life support. As he took his last breaths, I knew that I had to walk out of the hospital and immediately start fighting against the drug war that killed him. I also eventually discovered that my dad’s cause of death had been undiagnosed colon cancer. He had been suffering with no pain medicine or treatment.

My mom was denied compassionate release and was forced to mourn my dad in prison, where she remains. In the meantime, I have made good on my vow. Today, I am fighting for the prisoners my dad left behind. The thought of another caregiver dying in federal custody like my father did kills me. Nobody deserves to go to jail or die shackled to a hospital bed because of a plant.

The Drug War Endangers Police

Neill Franklin/LEAP

Although I’ve always had fleeting thoughts about the ineffectiveness of our nation’s longest war, the “war on drugs,” it took twenty-four years of policing to begin a focused analysis. 

I spent the majority of my career enforcing drug laws, working undercover and as a drug enforcement commander for the Maryland State Police. It was after I retired that I felt the pain of losing a very close friend to drug prohibition violence. 

Maryland State Trooper Ed Toatley was working undercover while assigned to an FBI task force. On October 30, 2000, Ed was making one last buy of cocaine from a midlevel dealer before the planned takedown and arrest. But the dealer had other plans, which would enable him to keep both the money and the drugs. He shot Ed at point-blank range in the side of his head during the transaction, killing him.

It was not long afterward that I was scouring the Internet for supporting facts about the failed drug war and came across the new website for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, 
founded in 2002. I reached out to LEAP and, a few years later, joined its speakers’ bureau. Since then, I have not looked back. I’ve been in favor of legalizing all drugs since 2008. The way I see it, the more dangerous we believe a drug to be, the more need we have for its regulation and control rather than the criminalization of its users.

Family Members Fight for Reform

Julie Stewart/Families Against Mandatory Minimums

In 1990, my brother was convicted of growing marijuana with two friends in a garage near Spokane, Washington. They grew as many small garden pots of seedlings as possible—365 in all. They hoped to produce some fifteen to twenty pounds of pot to split and sell to friends.

Instead, a neighbor called the police. My brother’s friends were arrested, and they immediately turned him in and testified against him in exchange for probation. My brother, who had no prior record, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute 365 kilos of marijuana. Incredibly, federal law assigns a one-kilo weight to each plant regardless of its size. My brother could have informed on others and reduced his sentence, but he refused to ruin someone else’s life. I respected him for that but was appalled at the Faustian bargain he was offered to receive a lighter sentence.

My outrage peaked, however, when the sentencing judge told him, “I do not want to give you this sentence, but my hands are tied by the mandatory sentencing laws passed by Congress.” Since when could judges not judge? Less than a year later, I started Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Twenty-three years later, I was gratified to hear Attorney General Eric Holder embrace our arguments against mandatory sentencing laws. We must repeal all of them. And if we’re smart, we’ll start with those targeting users of a drug that more than half the country thinks should be legal: marijuana.

From Prison Guard to Pot Entrepreneur

Madeline Martinez/Founder, World Famous Cannabis Cafe

I first became acquainted with cannabis on a warm California summer evening. Growing up in the turbulent ’60s, I considered it a rite of passage. Little did I know what my future held.

My work in adult education led me to a position at the California Institution for Women, a women’s prison in Chino. I became a correctional peace officer, more because I needed a steady job with decent pay and benefits rather than out of a desire to be in law enforcement. On the job, I would occasionally smell cannabis smoke wafting down the halls of the prison—as clear a symbol of the failed drug war as was possible. I retired under a medical disability a decade later and moved to Oregon in 1995. By then, I was already a cannabis consumer, having been diagnosed with a degenerative disk, joint disease and early deterioration of my sacroiliac. I found I could manage my severe and chronic pain with cannabis, without the terrible side effects of pharmaceuticals. I then registered under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Speaking with other OMMP cardholders, I realized the need to advocate for both medical cannabis for patients and legalization for the general public. I had seen the injustice of prohibition through the eyes of families torn apart by prison—mainly families of color. And sick people continue to be denied relief because of their choice of medicine.

When Eric Holder announced in 2009 that the Justice Department would no longer raid medical marijuana clubs that are legal under state law, I knew it was time to fulfill my dream of providing a safe place for people to enjoy cannabis. So, on November 13, 2009, the World Famous Cannabis Cafe was born, the first of its kind in the United States.

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A Former Drug Prisoner Fights Back

Amir Varick/Activist

In 1991, when I was 23 years old, I was arrested and imprisoned for a drug crime I did not commit. I spent almost twenty years in prison under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws. Five of those years were actually added to my sentence after a marijuana infraction behind bars. The state spent more than $250,000 to keep me in prison for those extra years because of a single joint. My total incarceration cost taxpayers about $1 million for a nonviolent offense.

Since my release in 2010, I have become devoted to activism. I recently gained the opportunity to work with the Drug Policy Alliance’s campaign to legalize medical marijuana in New York. I have met countless patients—from young military veterans to the elderly—who suffer from pain, nausea and other symptoms and who have found that marijuana provides relief, without the negative side effects that traditional medications have.

I am also an activist against the racist policing that leads to marijuana arrests. I myself have been repeatedly stopped and frisked all over the city. When elected, New York’s new mayor must stop the practice of targeting and prosecuting the city’s poorer and disenfranchised residents for small amounts of marijuana. 

Should the state criminalize individuals for using marijuana, whether to alleviate pain or for recreation? I say no. The state has an obligation to assist and protect its citizens and residents from harm—and to apply the law equally across communities, not just to a select few that happen to be poverty-stricken. 

Also In This Issue

Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Why Its Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana

Mike Riggs: “Obama’s War on Pot

Carl L. Hart: “Pot Reform’s Race Problem

Harry Levine: “The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Possession Arrests—and Why We Must Stop Them

Martin A. Lee: “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: The Populist Politics of Cannabis Reform

Martin A. Lee: “The Marijuana Miracle: Why a Single Compound in Cannabis May Revolutionize Modern Medicine

Kristen Gwynne: “Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: “Baking Bad: A Potted History of High Times

And only online…

J. Hoberman: “The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned

Harmon Leon: “Pot Block! Trapped in the Marijuana Rescheduling Maze

Seth Zuckerman: “Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?

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