By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.