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Prison in the Time of Coronavirus: One Inmates Hope for Release

Despite the legal advances of cannabis, there are still people incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses.

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Cancer Patient in Illinois Sentenced to Four Years in Prison For Marijuana

John Knock, a nonviolent first-time offender, has been serving two life sentences, without parole, since 1996, or 24 years in prison so far, for conspiracy to distribute cannabis. He is 72 years old. His son was not yet three when he went to prison. 

Knock, who did not plea-bargain and never turned states’ evidence, was convicted on a conspiracy charge where no marijuana was actually found. 

Despite the miscarriage of justice, Knock’s prison record has been consistently impeccable. Yet, for reasons unknown, he has been passed over for clemency by the past four U.S. presidents. 

This draconian sentence and lack of compassion that has kept an elderly man with medical conditions in a federal prison during the coronavirus pandemic is beyond cruel. 

Possible Relief in Sight 

Attorney David Holland, who previously served as assistant legal counsel for High Times magazine, is hoping to bring this decades’ long nightmare to an end. 

After years of appeals and exhausting all other options, Holland has filed a clemency motion via the compassionate release prong of the First Step Act (FSA). The FSA is a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed in December 2018 with the intention of reducing life sentences for some drug offenders and other prisoners for good behavior. 

Holland’s motion, filed with a Federal Court in Gainesville, Florida, argues that in the decades since Knock was sentenced, 33 states have legalized cannabis in some form, including 11 states that allow adult use consumption.

“The petition allows John, after seeking Compassionate Release from the Warden, based on his age and health to seek direct relief from the sentencing court,” Holland told High Times. 

Prison in the Time of Coronavirus: One Inmates Hope for Release

Additional Threat Facing Prisoners 

Holland admits that a full pardon for Knock might not be feasible in light of the various crises occurring in the country. “But, with the real fear of coronavirus so prevalent among the elderly and particularly on elderly inmates, I hope the judge will grant it and send him home.” 

So does Knock’s sister Beth Curtis, who has worked tirelessly for the release of her brother as well as other prisoners for the past two decades.

Curtis, who founded the website lifeforpot.com, told High Times that John’s petition for clemency was denied on the last day of the Obama administration, causing her and their whole family “indescribable despair that was unimaginable and paralyzing.” 

But she kept on. 

“It took time to realize that he [John] had been incarcerated throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations so there was no reason to give up hope for mercy and compassion now.”   

This time around, Curtis feels better about her brother’s prospects for clemency. 

“This timing is perfect and the federal defender in the jurisdiction loves it. Elements of it can be used by many nonviolent marijuana offenders if it is successful,” Curtis said. 

Holland agrees. “I believe John has as good a chance as he ever had particularly since people today are rarely sentenced to life in prison especially when dealing with non-violent first time marijuana offenders.” 

“I have a chart of other famous drug defendants who were sentenced to much less.”

An Appeal For Elderly Pot Prisoners

Following a series of exhausted appeals, Holland and Michael Kennedy, the late general counsel and former chairman of High Times magazine, wrote a petition for executive clemency in 2012 to President Barack Obama for five, elderly, non-violent marijuana prisoners serving life sentences, with no parole, for pot. 

Of the five – John Knock, Paul Free, Larry Ronald Duke, William Dekle – Knock is the only one who remains in prison. 

Relief in Sight With FSA

Though up until now the First Step Act has not had much luck getting cannabis prisoners released, Amy Povah—founder of the nonprofit CAN-DO foundation (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders)—is optimistic. 

“We have every reason to believe more people are coming home, including people serving time for cannabis, due to a willingness to listen to clemency advocates and criminal justice reform organizations,” Povah told High Times. “That’s what I call progress.”

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