Reefer Madness

Marijuana has not been de facto legalized, and the war on drugs is not just about cocaine and heroin. In fact, today, when we don't have enough jail cells for murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals, there may be more people in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses than at any other time in U.S. history

In the state of Indiana a person convicted of armed robbery will serve about five years in prison; someone convicted of rape will serve about twelve; and a convicted murderer can expect to spend twenty years behind bars. These figures are actually higher than the figures nationwide: eight years and eight months in prison is the average punishment for an American found guilty of murder. The prison terms given by Indiana judges tend to be long, but with good behavior an inmate will serve no more than half the nominal sentence. Those facts are worth keeping in mind when considering the case of Mark Young. At the age of thirty-eight Young was arrested at his Indianapolis home for brokering the sale of 700 pounds of marijuana grown on a farm in nearby Morgan County. Young was tried and convicted under federal law. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking. He had no history of violent crime. Young's role in the illegal transaction had been that of a middleman—he never distributed the drugs; he simply introduced two people hoping to sell a large amount of marijuana to three people wishing to buy it. The offense occurred a year and a half prior to his arrest. No confiscated marijuana, money, or physical evidence of any kind linked Young to the crime. He was convicted solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were now cooperating with the government. On February 8, 1992, Mark Young was sentenced by Judge Sarah Evans Barker to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

There was so much talk in the 1970s about the decriminalization of marijuana, and the smoking of marijuana is so casually taken for granted in much of our culture, that many people assume that a marijuana offense these days will rarely lead to a prison term. But in fact there may be more people in prison today for violating marijuana laws than at any other time in the nation's history. Calculations based on data provided by the Bureau of Prisons and the United States Sentencing Commission suggest that one of every six inmates in the federal prison system—roughly 15,000 people—has been incarcerated primarily for a marijuana offense. The number currently being held in state prisons and local jails is more difficult to estimate; a conservative guess would be an additional 20,000 to 30,000. And Mark Young's sentence, though unusual, is by no means unique. A dozen or more marijuana offenders may now be serving life sentences in federal penitentiaries without hope of parole; if one includes middle-aged inmates with sentences of twenty or thirty or forty years, the number condemned to die in prison may reach into the hundreds. Other inmates—no one knows how many—are serving life sentences in state correctional facilities across the country for growing, selling, or even possessing marijuana.

The phrase "war on drugs" evokes images of Colombian cartels and inner-city crack addicts. In many ways that is a misperception. Marijuana is and has long been the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. It is used here more frequently than all other illegal drugs combined. According to conservative estimates, one third of the American population over the age of eleven has smoked marijuana at least once. More than 17 million Americans smoked it in 1992. At least three million smoke it on a daily basis. Unlike heroin or cocaine, which must be imported, anywhere from a quarter to half of the marijuana used in this country is grown here as well. Although popular stereotypes depict marijuana growers as aging hippies in northern California or Hawaii, the majority of the marijuana now cultivated in the United States is being grown in the nation's midsection—a swath running roughly from the Appalachians west to the Great Plains. Throughout this Marijuana Belt drug fortunes are being made by farmers who often seem to have stepped from a page of the old Saturday Evening Post. The value of America's annual marijuana crop is staggering: plausible estimates start at $4 billion and range up to $24 billion. In 1993 the value of the nation's largest legal cash crop, corn, was roughly $16 billion.

Marijuana has well-organized supporters who campaign for its legalization and promote its use through books, magazines, and popular music. They regard marijuana as not only a benign recreational drug but also a form of herbal medicine and a product with industrial applications. Marijuana's opponents are equally passionate and far better organized. They consider marijuana a dangerous drug—one that harms the user's mental, physical, and spiritual well-being, promotes irresponsible sexual behavior, and encourages disrespect for traditional values. At the heart of the ongoing bitter debate is a hardy weed that can grow wild in all fifty states. The two sides agree that countless lives have been destroyed by marijuana, but disagree about what should be blamed: the plant itself, or the laws forbidding its use.

The war on drugs embraced by President Ronald Reagan began largely as a campaign against marijuana organized by conservative parents' groups in the late 1970s. After more than a decade in which penalties for marijuana offenses had been reduced at both the state and federal levels, the laws regarding marijuana were made much tougher in the 1980s. More resources were devoted to their enforcement, and punishments more severe than those administered during the "reefer madness" of the 1930s became routine. All the legal tools commonly associated with the fight against heroin and cocaine trafficking—civil forfeitures, enhanced police search powers, the broad application of conspiracy laws, a growing reliance on the testimony of informers, and mechanistic sentencing formulas, such as mandatory minimums and "three strikes, you're out"—have been employed against marijuana offenders. The story of how Mark Young got a life sentence reveals a great deal about the emergence of the American heartland as the region where a vast amount of the nation's marijuana is now grown; about the changing composition of the federal prison population; and about the effects of the war on drugs, a dozen years after its declaration, throughout America's criminal-justice system. Underlying Young's tale is a simple question: How does a society come to punish a person more harshly for selling marijuana than for killing someone with a gun?

Video:Scenes from the 1936 film Reefer Madness.

The Plant in Question

"MARIJUANA" is the Mexican colloquial name for a plant known to botanists as Cannabis sativa. In various forms it has long been familiar throughout the world: in Africa as "dagga," in China as "ma," in Northern Europe as "hemp." Although cannabis most likely originated in the steppes of central Asia, it now thrives in almost any climate, spreading like milkweed or thistle, crowding out neighboring grasses and reaching heights of three to twenty feet at maturity. Marijuana has been cultivated for at least 5,000 years; it is one of the oldest agricultural commodities not grown for food. The stalks of the plant contain fibers that have been woven for millennia to make rope, canvas, and paper. Cannabis is dioecious, spawning male and female plants in equal proportion. The flowering buds of the female—and to a lesser extent those of the male—secrete a sticky yellow resin rich with cannabinoids, the more than sixty compounds unique to marijuana. Several of them are psychoactive, most prominently delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes that marijuana will someday be hailed as a "miracle drug," one that is safe, inexpensive, and versatile. In his book Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine (1993) Grinspoon provides anecdotal evidence that smoking marijuana can relieve the nausea associated with chemotherapy, prevent blindness induced by glaucoma, serve as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients, act as an anti-epileptic, ward off asthma attacks and migraine headaches, alleviate chronic pain, and reduce the muscle spasticity that accompanies multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and paraplegia. Other doctors think that Grinspoon is wildly optimistic, and that no "crude drug" like marijuana—composed of more than 400 chemicals—should be included in the modern pharmacopoeia. They point out that effective synthetic drugs, of precise dosage and purity, have been developed for every one of marijuana's potential uses. Dronabinol, a synthetic form of delta-9-THC, has been available for years, though some clinical oncologists find it inferior to marijuana as an anti-nausea agent. There have been remarkably few large-scale studies that might verify or disprove Grinspoon's claims. Nevertheless, thirty-six states allow the medicinal use of marijuana, and eight patients are currently receiving it from the Public Health Service. According to Grinspoon, the federal government has always been far more interested in establishing marijuana's harmful effects than in discovering any of its benefits, while major drug companies have little incentive to fund expensive research on marijuana. As Grinspoon explains, "You cannot patent this plant."

The long-term health effects of chronic marijuana use, and marijuana's role as a "gateway" to the use of other illegal drugs, are issues surrounded by great controversy. Marijuana does not create a physical dependence in its users, but it does create a psychological dependence in some. People who smoke marijuana are far more likely to experiment later with other psychoactive drugs, but no direct cause-and-effect relationship has ever been established. Delta-9-THC is highly lipid-soluble and has a half-life of five days, which means that it diffuses widely throughout the human body and remains there for quite some time: an occasional user can fail a urine test three days after smoking a single joint, and a heavy user may test positive after abstaining from marijuana for more than a month. Delta-9-THC's persistence within various cells and vital organs (also a characteristic of Valium, Thorazine, and quinine) suggests that it could have the ability to exert subtly harmful effects; few have yet been proved. Studies of lifelong heavy marijuana users in Jamaica, Greece, and Costa Rica reveal little psychological or physiological damage. Much more research, however, needs to be done in the areas of cognition, reproduction, and immunology. Adolescent users in particular would be at risk if marijuana were found to have pernicious systemic effects. Some studies have shown that short-term memory deficiencies in heavy smokers, though reversible, may endure long after the cessation of marijuana use. Other studies have demonstrated in vitro and in laboratory animals that marijuana may have a mild immunosuppressive effect, but no study has conclusively linked delta-9-THC to immune-system changes in human beings. Well-publicized horror stories from the 1970s—that marijuana kills brain cells, damages chromosomes, and prompts men to grow breasts—were based on faulty research.

Smoking marijuana does seem to damage the pulmonary system, in some of the ways that inhaling tobacco smoke does. In a study of people who have smoked four or five joints a day for more than ten years, the physician Donald P. Tashkin, of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, has found substantial evidence that marijuana smoke can cause chronic bronchitis, changes in cells of the central airway which are potentially pre-cancerous, and an impairment in scavenger-cell function which could lead to a risk of respiratory infection. A joint seems to deliver four times as much carcinogenic tar as a tobacco cigarette of the same size. Tashkin expects that some heavy marijuana users will eventually suffer cancers of the mouth, throat, and lungs, although none of his research subjects has yet developed a malignancy. Oddly enough, the more potent strains of marijuana may prove less dangerous, since less of them needs to be smoked.

There is much less disagreement about the short-term health effects of marijuana. According to the physician Leo Hollister, a former president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, who now teaches at the University of Texas, the occasional use of marijuana by a healthy adult poses no greater risks than the moderate consumption of alcohol. For a variety of reasons, however, marijuana should not be smoked by schizophrenics, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions. Although the misuse of over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and antihistamines each year kills hundreds of Americans, not a single death has ever been credibly attributed directly to smoking or consuming marijuana in the 5,000 years of the plant's recorded use. Marijuana is one of the few therapeutically active substances known to man for which there is no well-defined fatal dose. It has been estimated that a person would have to smoke a hundred pounds of marijuana a minute for fifteen minutes in order to induce a lethal response.

Criminalized, Decriminalized, Recriminalized

THE first American law pertaining to marijuana, passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1619, required every farmer to grow it. Hemp was deemed not only a valuable commodity but also a strategic necessity; its fibers were used to make sails and riggings, and its by-products were transformed into oakum for the caulking of wooden ships. Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland eventually allowed hemp to be exchanged as legal tender, in order to stimulate its production and relieve Colonial money shortages. Although a number of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, later grew hemp on their estates, there is no evidence that they were aware of the plant's psychoactive properties. The domestic production of hemp flourished, especially in Kentucky, until after the Civil War, when it was replaced by imports from Russia and by other domestic materials. In the latter half of the nineteenth century marijuana became a popular ingredient in patent medicines and was sold openly at pharmacies in one-ounce herbal packages and in alcohol-based tinctures as a cure for migraines, rheumatism, and insomnia.

The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 led to a wave of Mexican immigration to states throughout the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood," and gave its users "superhuman strength." Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. "The Marijuana Menace," as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants. In 1914 El Paso, Texas, enacted perhaps the first U.S. ordinance banning the sale or possession of marijuana; by 1931 twenty-nine states had outlawed marijuana, usually with little fanfare or debate. Amid the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by the Great Depression, public officials from the Southwest and from Louisiana petitioned the Treasury Department to outlaw marijuana. Their efforts were aided by a lurid propaganda campaign. "Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast," one headline warned; "Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready For Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children." Harry J. Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, at first doubted the seriousness of the problem and the need for federal legislation, but soon he pursued the goal of a nationwide marijuana prohibition with enormous gusto. In public appearances and radio broadcasts Anslinger asserted that the use of this "evil weed" led to killings, sex crimes, and insanity. He wrote sensational magazine articles with titles like "Marijuana: Assassin of Youth." In 1937 Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, effectively criminalizing the possession of marijuana throughout the United States. A week after it went into effect, a fifty-eight-year-old marijuana dealer named Samuel R. Caldwell became the first person convicted under the new statute. Although marijuana offenders had been treated leniently under state and local laws, Judge J. Foster Symes, of Denver, lectured Caldwell on the viciousness of marijuana and sentenced him to four hard years at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Harry J. Anslinger is a central figure in the history of American drug policy. He headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from its inception through five presidential Administrations spanning more than three decades. Anslinger had much in common with his rival, J. Edgar Hoover. Both were conservative, staunchly anti-communist proponents of law and order who imbued nascent federal bureaus with their own idiosyncracies. Anslinger did not believe in a public-health approach to drug addiction; he dismissed treatment clinics as "morphine feeding stations" and "barrooms for addicts." In his view, strict enforcement of the law was the only proper response to illegal drug use; he urged judges to "jail offenders, then throw away the key." Anslinger's outlook was consistent with that of most Americans, though his opinions proved more resistant to new scientific evidence. When the New York Academy of Medicine—after years of research—issued a report in 1944 concluding that marijuana use did not cause violent behavior, provoke insanity, lead to addiction, or promote opiate use, Anslinger angrily dismissed its authors as "dangerous" and "strange."

America's drug problem often seemed the work of foreign powers: during the Second World War, Anslinger accused the Japanese of using narcotics to sap America's will to fight; a few years later he asserted that Communists were attempting the same ploy. The Boggs Act, passed by Congress at the height of the McCarthy era, specified the same penalties for marijuana and heroin offenses—two to five years in prison for first-time possession. As justification for the long sentences contained in that act and in the Narcotic Control Act, which followed in 1956, Anslinger stressed marijuana's crucial role as a "stepping-stone" to narcotics addiction. Like Hoover, he maintained dossiers on well-known entertainers whose behavior seemed un-American. Anslinger disliked jazz and kept a special file, "Marijuana and Musicians," filled with reports on band members who played with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Les Brown, Count Basie, Jimmy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington, among others. For months Anslinger planned a nationwide roundup of popular musicians—a scheme that was foiled by the inability of FBN agents to infiltrate the jazz milieu. Although Anslinger's opposition to drug use was both passionate and sincere, he made one notable exception. In his memoir, The Murderers, Anslinger confessed to having arranged a regular supply of morphine for "one of the most influential members of Congress," who had become an addict. Anslinger's biographer believes that addict was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

By 1962, when Harry J. Anslinger retired, many states had passed "little Boggs Acts" with penalties for marijuana possession or sale tougher than those demanded by federal law. In Louisiana sentences for simple possession ranged from five to ninety-nine years; in Missouri a second offense could result in a life sentence; and in Georgia a second conviction for selling marijuana to minors could bring the death penalty. As the political climate changed during the 1960s, so did attitudes toward drug abuse. A series of commissions appointed by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson repudiated some of the basic assumptions that had guided marijuana policy for more than fifty years, denying a direct link between the drug and violent crime or heroin use. As marijuana use became widespread among white middle-class college students, there was a reappraisal of marijuana laws that for decades had imprisoned poor Mexicans and African-Americans without much public dissent. Drug-abuse policy shifted from a purely criminal-justice approach to one also motivated by interests of public health, with more emphasis on treatment than on punishment. In 1970 the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act finally differentiated marijuana from other narcotics and reduced federal penalties for possession of small amounts. As directed by Congress, President Richard Nixon appointed a bipartisan commission to study marijuana. In 1972 the Shafer Commission issued its report, advocating the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use—a recommendation that Nixon flatly rejected. Nevertheless, eleven states, containing a third of the country's population, decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s, and most other states weakened their laws against it. President Jimmy Carter endorsed decriminalization, and it seemed that long prison sentences for marijuana offenders had been consigned to the nation's past.

But they had not. One of the seminal events in the creation of the modern American anti-drug movement was a backyard barbecue held in Atlanta, Georgia, during August of 1976. In the aftermath of their daughter's birthday party, Ron and Marsha Manatt combed through the wet grass in their pajamas, at one in the morning, with flashlights, finding dozens of marijuana roaches, rolling-paper packets, and empty bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 fortified wine discarded by their twelve- and thirteen-year-old guests. Alarmed by these discoveries, the Manatts gathered local parents in their living room and formed what was soon known as the Nosy Parents Association, a group dedicated to preventing teenage drug use. Marsha Manatt wrote to Robert DuPont, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse; he helped arrange her introduction to Thomas Gleaton, a professor of health education at Georgia State University. There soon arose the Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education and the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, two organizations backed by top officials at NIDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which would exert tremendous influence on the nation's drug policies. Thousands of other parents' groups soon formed nationwide, and Ross Perot helped launch the Texans' War on Drugs.

Marijuana use seemed epidemic: a survey in 1976 found that one out of twelve high school seniors smoked pot on a daily basis. In the 1960s the youth counterculture had celebrated marijuana's reputation as a drug for outcasts and freaks. One Yippie leader had confidently predicted that the slogan of the coming revolution would be "pot, freedom, license." The conservative parents' groups took such words to heart and similarly invested marijuana with great meaning. Robert DuPont, who at NIDA had once supported decriminalization, later decried the "tumultuous change in values" among the young—their pursuit of pleasure, their lack of responsibility to society—and argued that "the leading edge of this cultural change was marijuana use."

The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency brought the war on drugs to the White House. In June of 1982 President Reagan signed an executive order creating a new post in his Administration—head of the White House Drug Abuse Policy Office—and appointed a chemist, Carlton Turner, to the job. Turner had for many years directed the Marijuana Research Project at the University of Mississippi, running the government's only marijuana farm. Turner believed that marijuana was an extremely dangerous drug—one that, among other things, might have the power to induce homosexuality. In 1977 the DEA had acknowledged that decriminalization was a policy worth considering; three years later it called marijuana the most urgent drug problem facing the United States. Richard Bonnie, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who was an influential member of the Shafer Commission staff, believes that advocates of marijuana-law reform were pushed out of the mainstream by the growing stridency and power of the parents' groups. Political moderates soon abandoned the issue. Amid their silence, philosophies of "zero tolerance" and "user accountability" revived the notion that what drug offenders deserved most was punishment. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act of 1988 raised federal penalties for marijuana possession, cultivation, and trafficking. Sentences were to be determined by the quantity of the drug involved; "conspiracies" and "attempts" were to be punished as severely as completed acts; and possession of a hundred marijuana plants now carried the same sentence as possession of a hundred grams of heroin.

The Caprice of Geography

MARIJUANA is currently classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, implying that it has a high potential for abuse, no officially accepted medicinal uses, and no safe level of use under medical supervision. Heroin, LSD, and peyote are other Schedule I drugs; cocaine and phencyclidine (PCP) are listed in Schedule II, allowing doctors to prescribe them. Under federal law it is illegal to buy, sell, grow, or possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the United States. Penalties for a first offense range from probation to life imprisonment, with fines of up to $4 million, depending on the quantity of marijuana involved. Moreover, it is illegal to use the U.S. Postal Service or other interstate shippers for the advertisement, import, or export of such marijuana paraphernalia as roach clips, water pipes, and, in some instances, cigarette papers—a crime that can lead to imprisonment and fines of up to $100,000. Under civil-forfeiture statutes real estate, vehicles, cash, securities, jewelry, and any other property connected with a marijuana offense are subject to immediate seizure. The federal government need not prove that the property was bought with the proceeds of illegal drug sales, only that it was involved in the commission of a crime—that marijuana was grown on certain land or transported in a particular vehicle. Property may be forfeited even after a defendant has been found innocent of the offense, since the burden of proof that applies to people—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—does not apply in accusations against inanimate objects. Property can be forfeited without its owner's ever being charged with a crime. On top of fines, incarceration, and forfeiture, a convicted marijuana offender may face the revocation or denial of more than 460 federal benefits, including student loans, small-business loans, professional licenses, and farm subsidies. In international smuggling cases the offender's passport can be revoked.

State marijuana laws were also toughened during the 1980s and now vary enormously. Some states classify marijuana with drugs like mescaline and heroin, while others give it a separate legal category. In New York state possessing slightly less than an ounce of marijuana brings a $100 fine, rarely collected. In Nevada possessing any amount of marijuana is a felony. In Montana selling a pound of marijuana, first offense, could lead to a life sentence, whereas in New Mexico selling 10,000 pounds of marijuana, first offense, could be punished with a prison term of no more than three years. In some states it is against the law to be in a room where marijuana is being smoked, even if you don't smoke any. In some states you may be subject to criminal charges if someone else uses, distributes, or cultivates marijuana on your property. In Idaho selling water pipes could lead to a prison sentence of nine years. In Kentucky products made of hemp fibers, such as paper and clothing, not only are illegal but carry the same penalties associated with an equivalent weight of marijuana. In Arizona, where marijuana use is forbidden, the crime can be established by the failure of a urine test: a person could theoretically be prosecuted in Phoenix for a joint smoked in Philadelphia more than a week before.

Crossing an invisible state line with marijuana in your car can result in vastly different punishments. If you are caught with three ounces of marijuana in Union City, Ohio, you will probably be fined $100. But if you are caught in the town of the same name literally across the road in Indiana, you could face nine months to two years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, a felony record, suspension of your driver's license, forfeiture of your car, and charges of marijuana possession, of possession with intent to distribute, and of "maintaining a common nuisance" (for the criminal use of an automobile). That one arrest in Indiana might cost you the $10,000 fine and at least $5,000 in legal fees, plus the value of your forfeited car. Wide discrepancies in punishment occur not just between states but also from county to county within a given state. In La Salle County, Illinois, a first-time offender arrested with 300 pounds of marijuana might be sentenced to four months in boot camp. Sixty-five miles to the south, in McLean County, the same person convicted of the same crime would more likely receive a prison sentence of four to eight years.

In 1992 more than 340,000 people were arrested nationwide for violating marijuana laws. Almost three quarters of those arrests were for simple possession, a crime that generally does not lead to incarceration. But possession of more than an ounce—roughly equal to the amount of tobacco in a pack of cigarettes—is in many states a felony. Conviction may lead to a few months or a few years behind bars and the loss of a house or a job. People who use marijuana as medicine must either buy it from drug dealers or grow it themselves, often in violation of the law. James Cox, a cancer patient in St. Louis, was found guilty of growing marijuana and sentenced to fifteen years in prison; after the verdict both he and his wife attempted suicide. Orland Foster, an AIDS patient in North Carolina, served fifteen months for growing marijuana; one of his cellmates served less time for killing a woman. Now on probation, Foster must either give up marijuana and risk losing weight, or violate the terms of his release and risk going back to prison.

In perhaps the most extraordinary case of this kind, Jim Montgomery, a paraplegic immobilized from the waist down, who smoked marijuana to relieve muscle spasms, was arrested in Sayre, Oklahoma, when sheriffs found two ounces of pot in the pouch on the back of his wheelchair. Montgomery was tried and convicted in 1992, by a jury, for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, for possession of paraphernalia, for unlawful possession of a weapon during the commission of a crime (two handguns inherited from his father, a police officer), and for maintaining a place resorted to by users of controlled substances. His sentence was life in prison, plus sixteen years. Both the judge and the local prosecutor were disturbed by the sentence chosen by the jury; the judge subsequently reduced it to ten years. Montgomery spent ten months in a prison medical unit, where he developed a life-threatening infection, before being released on bond. His appeal is now pending. "I'll never go back to that prison," he says. "I'd rather put a bullet in my head." His case has already cost him more than $30,000 in legal fees. The government's effort to seize Montgomery's home, shared with his widowed mother, proved unsuccessful.

Oklahoma today has a well-deserved reputation for being the worst place in the United States to be caught with marijuana. On June 11, 1992, Larry Jackson, a small-time crook with a lengthy record of nonviolent offenses, was arrested at a friend's Tulsa apartment. On the floor near Jackson's right foot a police officer noticed a minuscule amount of marijuana—0.16 of a gram, which is 0.005644 of an ounce. Jackson was charged with felony possession of marijuana, convicted, and given a life sentence. In Oklahoma City, Leland James Dodd was given two life sentences, plus ten years, for buying fifty pounds of marijuana from undercover officers in a "reverse sting." Oklahoma is not alone in handing out life sentences for buying marijuana from the government. In Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, William Stephen Bonner, a truck driver, was sent away for life without possibility of parole after state narcotics agents delivered forty pounds of marijuana to his bedroom. Raymond Pope, a resident of Georgia, was lured to Baldwin County, Alabama, in 1990 with promises of cheap marijuana; he bought twenty-seven pounds from local sheriffs in a reverse sting, was convicted, and was sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Pope's criminal record consisted of prior convictions for stealing televisions and bedspreads from Georgia motels. He is now imprisoned 400 miles from his family. He has three young children.

Although the penalties for buying, selling, or possessing marijuana are often severe, the penalties for growing it can be even more severe. In Iowa cultivating any amount can lead to a five-year prison sentence, in Colorado to an eight-year sentence, in Missouri to a fifteen-year sentence. In the state of Virginia the recommended punishment for growing a single marijuana plant is a prison term of five to thirty years.

A Farm in Morgan County

IN November of 1988 Claude Atkinson and Ernest Montgomery met at a Denny's near the airport in Indianapolis to discuss setting up a large-scale marijuana-growing operation. Atkinson, a fifty-nine-year-old Indiana native, was by all accounts charismatic and highly skilled at cultivating marijuana. Ostensibly a used-farm-implements dealer, Atkinson had organized huge marijuana farms in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. His knowledge of growing techniques was much more impressive than his skill at eluding capture. In 1984 law-enforcement authorities had linked him to a pot farm in Paragon, Indiana; the following year he was caught growing marijuana with artificial light in an immense Indianapolis warehouse; and in 1987 a deer hunter stumbled upon thousands of his marijuana plants in an Indiana field. Claude Atkinson had cut a series of deals with the government, informing on others after each arrest and serving brief terms in prison, where he recruited employees for future ventures. Now fresh out of custody and broke, he was ready to get back into the growing business. Ernest Montgomery was an unemployed truck driver in his early forties who wanted to make big money. They agreed to form a partnership, with Montgomery supplying the capital and Atkinson the expertise. Soon after their meeting Claude Atkinson went to the Indiana statehouse and formed a dummy corporation, R.P.Z. Investments, using one of his many pseudonyms, Arno Zepp.

That fall Atkinson supervised the construction of a large "grow room" in the basement of a secluded cabin that Montgomery owned in Gosport. Montgomery enlisted his younger brother, Jerry, a gravedigger with a slight drinking problem, to help with the task. Together the three men drilled holes in the concrete floor for drainage, built a cooling system, assembled ballasts and reflectors, suspended grow lights with thousand-watt halide bulbs from the ceiling, and planted marijuana seeds in small pots. They installed a generator so that the operation would not be detected through an incongruously high electric bill. Montgomery invited David Lee Haynes, a young lumberyard ripsaw operator from Louisville, Kentucky, and the son of an old friend, to come live at the cabin and tend the plants. After digging graves all day, Jerry Montgomery would visit the dark basement in the evenings. By spring the group had approximately 12,500 seedlings of marijuana, contained in sixteen plywood flats. What they needed next was a farm.

In May of 1989 Martha Brummett, an elderly woman hard of hearing, agreed to lease her farmhouse halfway between Eminence and Cloverdale, in Morgan County, to R.P.Z. Investments. It came with about forty acres, a barn, and an option to buy. Martha Brummett was surprised that when a "Charlie Peters" arrived to sign the lease, the woman with him remained in the car and never entered the house. Nevertheless, Brummett innocently signed over her farm for $10,000 in cash, which she then took straight to her bank.

After Ernest Montgomery and his wife, Cindy, obtained the house, David Haynes moved into it, to babysit the operation, having obtained a sham rental agreement from R.P.Z. Investments as a legal buffer against what was about to happen on the land. The group plowed and tilled the field, fertilized it, and planted corn. Once the corn had reached a good height, they planted marijuana, hiding it amid the stalks. Over the summer they walked the fields, "sexing" the marijuana—eliminating all the males. The females, left unpollinated, would produce a much higher level of delta-9-THC in their buds, and would thus become a much more valuable crop: sensimilla. In late September, before the corn leaves turned golden, the group harvested the marijuana and then cured it in the barn for two weeks and cut it into "books" about a foot wide and three feet long. The books were hauled into the farmhouse or driven to the cabin in Gosport for manicuring: the stems, orphan leaves, and fan leaves were separated from the precious buds. So far the operation had gone smoothly. Soon there would be about 900 pounds of high-quality marijuana to sell. Now the group needed buyers. Ernest Montgomery thought that Mark Young, a man whom he had met a few times with Cindy, might know the right people to call.

Mark Young was thirty-six and had been smoking marijuana on a daily basis since his late teens. He grew up in Christian Park Heights, a middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis. His father left the family when Mark was two; he and his sister, Andrea, were raised by their mother, Mary, who worked as a waitress or a hostess to pay the bills. Young was a willful, stubborn, charming boy, always getting into trouble. He seemed to have, throughout his pranks and petty thefts, the sort of bad luck that is almost uncanny—often he would get caught while his friends got away. Young dropped out of high school after a year, became a father at the age of sixteen, married to give the child his name, divorced, worked as a carpet-layer, washed dishes, laid concrete, tended bar, sold used cars, and rebuilt Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He kept an album filled with pictures of his favorite Harleys. He knew all the local biker gangs, but remained apart; Young seemed to get into enough trouble on his own. He dated many attractive women, lived a fast life, and slowly acquired a criminal record—nothing violent, just misdemeanors for driving without a license, for possession of marijuana, for taking a girlfriend's stereo. He also earned two felony convictions: one at the age of twenty-one, for attempting to pass a fraudulent prescription, and the other at the age of twenty-five, for possession of a few amphetamines and Quaaludes. Each felony brought a suspended sentence, probation, and a one-dollar fine. When Ernest Montgomery called, Mark Young was rebuilding motorcycles, selling used cars wholesale, and looking for new income. He had held a financial interest in a number of massage parlors, which were now closed. His dream was to get some money, move to Florida, build custom Harleys, and work part-time as a fishing guide on Lake Okeechobee.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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