Prisoners of War (on Drugs): Marijuana Keeps Thousands Behind Bars With Little Hope of Getting Out

As cannabis legalization reaches new milestones on a regular basis, inmates are still serving long prison sentences for crimes that are no longer punishable in some states. John Knock, 72, is one of them.

His sister, Beth Curtis, is keeping him and others like him – marijuana lifers without parole — at the forefront of her daily life and wants the world to know about their plight.

“John is the victim of the war on drugs and draconian sentencing practices,” said Curtis, who recently started a petition seeking clemency for her brother.

Non-violent pot lifers are among the lingering results of the War on Drugs, declared by former President Richard Nixon in 1971 for reasons having more to do with attacking the anti-war left and black community, going by the statements of the president’s confidant.

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” Nixon’s domestic policy adviser at the time, John Ehrlichman, told author Dan Baum in a 1994 interview. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Baum had interviewed Ehrlichman for a book he was writing on the drug war, “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure,” which was released in 1997. In 2016, Baum published some of Ehrlichman’s comments in Harper’s Magazine.  

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the [Vietnam] war or be black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” said Ehrlichman, who died in 1999.

The drug war was exacerbated 15 years later by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which introduced mandatory minimum sentencing for, among other things, drug possession, including marijuana. The system essentially shifted sentencing from judges to prosecutors.

“Parole boards were abolished in federal prisons, so people stopped exiting prison and thousands were sentenced to life without parole,” Amy Povah, founder of nonprofit CAN-DO foundation (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders), told

“The drug war is the only war this country has ever fought without an exit strategy. There was never any intention to win the war on drugs,” Povah added.

Indeed, the prisons were quickly bursting at the seams with non-violent, first-time drug offenders. The number of people in that category rose from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for drug decriminalization.

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prison show little has changed. The 79,036 people serving time on federal drug charges make up nearly half of the total federal prison population.

Beth Curtis said her brother was sentenced in 1996 for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and conspiracy to launder money.

“Being charged with conspiracy is horrible,” she said. “You’re charged on the testimony of others. There doesn’t have to be any physical evidence provided by the prosecutors, like in John’s case.”

There are dozens more like Knock who Curtis believed were all a shoo-in for clemency when President Barack Obama issued his last round of pardons on January 17, 2017

“My heart stopped when I saw my brother’s name on the denial list, along with 18,000 others,” Curtis told

Curtis’s heart may have stopped briefly but it didn’t slow her pace down.

The 77-year-old widow who lives in the former coal-mining city of Zanesville, Ohio, started her full-time advocacy the day after her brother was sentenced. She began by looking for others incarcerated for marijuana and started exchanging letters with them.

“It was hard because they don’t know who to trust, but little by little, I won their confidence and now I stay in touch with as many pot lifers as possible.”

Curtis’s advocacy activities involve constantly updating her self-funded website,, which profiles the dozens of inmates serving long sentences solely for marijuana-related charges. She keeps the media informed about their cases and writes letters to lawmakers and influencers.

One of Curtis’s messages to lawmakers is the fiscal irresponsibility of cannabis prohibition.

“I try to impress on them how absurd it is to spend billions of dollars to hold non-violent pot offenders for years on end, some of whom are elderly and require costly medical care,” Curtis said.

Curtis said she feels the US criminal justice system is being held captive by one agency: the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

“The DEA could make changes in marijuana’s Schedule I status tomorrow.”

Curtis intends to seek clemency for her brother from President Donald Trump. She calls herself an optimist, having sought clemency for her brother and other inmates from three former presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

“I figure chances are just as good under the current president as they were in the past,” said Curtis. “I can’t let myself believe something as obscene as my brother spending the rest of his life in prison.”

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