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A Life Sentence for Pot? Not if Beth Curtis Can Help It

by Daniel A. Rosen

Seventy-nine-year-old Beth Curtis has been nicknamed the “Mother Theresa of Pot Prisoners” for good reason. The self-described “incessant nag” has lobbied for years on behalf of those sentenced to life for marijuana offenses. She founded the website in 2009 to advocate for clemency for her brother John and people like him―those serving excessively long federal sentences for marijuana-related crimes.

She started her advocacy work with hopes of raising public awareness about federal marijuana sentencing. “When I talked about somebody serving life for marijuana, honestly people didn’t believe it,” Curtis said. “They’d think, ‘There has to be a dead body somewhere.’ Indeed, there do not have to be any dead bodies, or even a gun.”

Her site has been effective, and it’s helped her find more pot lifers. 39 people have been profiled on the site, 24 of whom have been granted clemency or compassionate release. Curtis’ brother John Knock was the most recent beneficiary of her hard work. He was granted clemency by President Trump in January 2020.

“She did it,” said Knock, now 73, said of his sister. “One little lady, barely five feet tall, and she just kept pushing and pushing and pushing.”

John Knock was sentenced in 2001 to two life terms plus 40 years for first-time nonviolent offenses, including conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana, and money laundering. He was first charged in 1994, but says he left the marijuana business in the late 1980’s, moving to Hawaii with his wife and young son. He fled the U.S. and was arrested in France in 1996. After fighting extradition for years, Knock was ultimately transferred to Florida to stand trial, and convicted in 2000. His draconian sentence was devastating to his sister.

“I couldn’t accept the fact that he would die in prison,” Curtis said. “It was just unfathomable to me, which is why I kept going after the appeals stopped.”

Knock’s appeals dragged on, but Curtis sought out others in the same boat. She had a hard time using public records to locate others, and even today she isn’t sure how many lifers there are in the federal system for marijuana offenses. But Curtis tracked down others with a similar profile as her brother John one by one, and reached out with a questionnaire, wanting to feature their cases on her website. “Some of them were suspicious, and I had to write them a lot,” she said.

Michael Pelletier was one prisoner, now freed, who was skeptical, but Curtis finally won him over. “I get it now,” he finally wrote. “You’re like my mom.”

Paul Free was another who’d spent fifteen years fighting his conviction. When Curtis reached out he did not expect her to stick with his fight. But they spoke on the phone and emailed often over ten years, until he won his freedom. “She kept fighting for me, and, goddamn, it worked,” said Pelletier.

Craig Cesal, 61, was also sentenced to life without parole for a pot charge. He ran a business in Chicago fixing trucks for a Florida company when he was arrested in his early 40s. “They said since I knew some of the drivers were trafficking marijuana that it made me part of their marijuana conspiracy,” Cesal said.

In a 2013 ACLU report, Knock and Cesal were featured among the thousands serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the U.S. “That gave us exposure to a lot of advocacy groups that backed us up,” said Cesal.

Earlier that decade, states like California and Washington had legalized medical marijuana, and other states followed. Recreational usage has also become legal in several states. The shift in public policy and opinion has helped bring the issue of marijuana lifers to the fore.

President Obama granted clemency to many of those featured on the site Curtis set up. She would now like to see President Biden grant clemency to all those with outstanding nonviolent pot convictions.

“At this point, with marijuana being legalized, people making billions of dollars, and lobbyists crawling all over the Capitol lobbying for the marijuana industry, I think it’s an outrageous thing that anybody is in prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense,” Curtis said. “So, I’m not done.”


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