"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Most Americans want pot to be legal, and as many as 70% of Americans want to legalize it for medical use. Nonetheless, the war on pot rages on. The Obama administration has actually increased raids on state-sanctioned medical pot programs, prosecuting both patients and their providers. Medical pot defendants have little protection in the justice system, which denies as evidence mention of their marijuana prescription or state-sanctioned use. A review of some of the sentences over the past few decades — punishments that plague individuals for decades, even after release — reveals the injustice of the drug war. Here’s a rundown of the people who received the harshest penalties handed down for pot in recent history.
1. Christopher Williams
A Montana medical marijuana provider is facing 82 to 85 years behind bars, due to mandatory minimum laws linked to some of his charges. Convicted of crimes like manufacturing marijuana, intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, Christopher Williams appeared to be in the for the worst. But in a rare move this September, U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered to drop four of Williams’ charges and bring his sentencing down to “as little as 10 years,” so long as Williams waived his right to appeal.
Williams refused the offer on moral grounds. The case isn’t about medical pot, says Williams, whose judge prohibited discussion of Montana’s medical marijuana program at trial. Rather, he says, it is about government abuse of power. “I have decided to fight the federal government, because for me not defending the things that I know are right is dishonorable,” Williams wrote to the Independent Record, “Every citizen has a responsibility to fight for what is right, even if it seems like the struggle will be lost.”
Michael Donahoe, Williams’ attorney, said that federal prosecutors often bring gun charges against medical marijuana defendants without the intent to prosecute them. Rather, they are hoping for a plea bargain — one Williams is not willing to take.
“We know this for two reasons,” Donahoe told the Missoulan, “First, because the government readily agreed to dismiss the firearms counts for virtually every other medical marijuana defendant in those cases where firearms violations had been charged. And second, because insofar as [Williams’] ‘conspiracy’ is concerned, every other defendant had no real choice but to plead guilty in exchange for the firearms charges being dropped.”
He added, “Given the government’s conduct here that was a false choice inspired by an abusive exercise of government power, considering that it was the government’s reckless decision to change its medical marijuana policy that was the first cause of all these problems.”
2. Patricia Spottedcrow
Oklahoma mother of four Patricia Spottedcrow learned firsthand how a small-time pot bust can completely derail an offender’s life. A $31 pot sale got her a stunning 12-year prison sentence. In the two years she has been incarcerated, she has seen her children only twice. What’s more, her good behavior behind bars, including completing her GED and other self-improvement programs, has not reduced the confusing back-and-forth from the Pardon and Parole Board.A judge recently reduced Spottedcrow’s sentence to eight years, because “she needs more time to prepare and mature.” The latest frustration in her case came at the close of this summer, when the parole board withdrew her parole restrictions before suspending them, delaying her beginning of a work-release program. She spent just minutes at the work-release facility, Hillside Correctional Center in Oklahoma City, before being sent back in cuffs to Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft. Unfortunately for Spottedcrow and her family, who are surviving on a limited income, they can afford to make the trip to make the trip to Hillside, but not to Eddie Warrior.
Spottedcrow told KFOR-TV in Oklahoma, “I’m not gonna give up until I walk out the gate…I’ve got my mom and my kids out there waiting on me. Whatever it takes to get me to them I’m going to do it. I’ve been doing it.”
3. Jonathan Magbie
Jonathan Magbie’s story is a stunning example of the cruelty that can accompany an arrest for medical marijuana. Paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a drunk driver at the age of four, Magpie was charged with marijuana possession in 2004 after cops found a joint and a loaded gun in a vehicle in which he was the passenger. Though he had never been convicted of a criminal offense and required medical assistance 20 hours a day, he was given a 10-day sentence in a DC jail. With no ventilator to sustain his breathing, he died in jail four days later.
Magbie’s marijuana punishment was a death sentence. Without their medication behind bars, pot patients who make it out alive have endured days, weeks or years without their medication. Even after release, conditions of parole, including urine tests, may prevent patients from accessing their medicine.
4. Robert Platshorn
Robert Platshorn is famous for being a marijuana trafficker. A leader of what the DEA dubbed the “Black Tuna Gang,” Platshorn spent the mid- to late-’70s smuggling weed into the US from Colombia before he was busted in 1978. Authorities accused him of importing as much as 500 tons of pot, and Platshorn gained infamy for his connection to what the DEA said was the most sophisticated drug operation it had seen yet. He was sentenced to 30 years, 28 of which he served until he was released on parole in 2008. Because Platshorn served nearly the full length of his sentence, he has taken on another label, this time as the man believed to have spent the most time locked up for pot in America.
Now almost 70 years old, Platshorn is a marijuana activist who has managed to stay in the public eye. He recently toured America with the Silver Tour, speaking with seniors about medical marijuana. His most recent brush with law enforcement went down this summer. In May 2011, Platshorn received a letter from the parole board apparently releasing him from service. But this July, after his parole officer had passed away and two days before he was to speak before the American Bar Association, a new parole officer named Scott Kirsche showed up at his door and demanded he give a urine sample. Platshorn — who says his former parole officer allowed him to travel to pot-related events and also approved his use of cannabis oil for skin cancer — failed the test and was ordered to immediately stop treating his cancer with cannabis oil.
Then, in one of the most shocking elements of Platshorn’s life story, he received what is effectively a gag order: Platshorn told South Florida’s Sun Sentenial that he is banned from travel “to promote the legalization of marijuana without the express permission of the U.S. Parole Commission.” Platshorn was specificallytold not to appear at an upcoming High Times medical event in San Francisco, and to cut ties with patient and fellow Silver Tour board member Irvin Rosenfeld. In July, U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks ordered Platshorn to remain under parole supervision, while claiming his request for freedom to speak at marijuana-related events conflicts with his criminal record.
5. Will Foster
US Army veteran and business-owner Will Foster was suffering from widespread rheumatoid arthritis when he started growing marijuana. In 1997, Oklahoma police discovered his marijuana garden and just $28 cash after a “confidential informant” helped them procure a “John Doe” search warrant for methamphetamine. His sentence was reduced to 20 years and he was paroled to California in 2001. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections was unhappy when Foster completed parole, and attempted to extradite him back to Oklahoma — a fight Foster won.
But in 2008, Foster’s marijuana grow, legal by California standards, was raided. Foster sat in a California jail for a year before local authorities dropped the charges. Unfortunately for Foster, Oklahoma officials showed up at the Calif. jail, shackled Foster and drove him back to Oklahoma, where he remained until he was released in late November 2009.
6. John Avery
In 1994, more than 50 DEA agents, local police and sheriffs raided wheelchair-bound John Avery’s 50-acre property. They discovered 1,250 pot plants in an underground marijuana garden. Police arrested Avery’s son-law, Ricky Daniels, and a friend, David Tapley. Collectively, the two implicated Daniels’ wife Michele, John Avery, Avery’s deceased son, and his daughter Sheri. The five names were enough to charge John Avery with “continuing a criminal enterprise.”
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:
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.
Years behind bars is not the only way marijuana offenders are punished. Other consequences of marijuana prohibition are often far more devastating than the use of the drug itself. Students can lose their financial aid; the tiniest bit of weed can lead to a child neglect charge (and removal of children from the home); and drug tests can cause skilled workers to be fired and lose their government benefits. The punishments for pot do not fit the crime, especially when most Americans want marijuana legal. But until we demand an end to 75 years of pot prohibition, we will continue to spend tax dollars prosecuting marijuana criminals.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)