Law & the Courts

A Man Is Serving Life in Prison for a First-Time Drug Offense. That’s Wrong.

Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Wash., November 27, 2012. (Anthony Bolante/Reuters)
What Craig Cesal did was not worse than, or even comparable to, the actions of a terrorist.

Craig Cesal is currently serving life behind bars at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. — without the possibility of parole — for a first-time, nonviolent marijuana offense.

In a piece for the Daily Caller, Cesal — who has already been behind bars for more than 17 years — explains that although “the government never claimed” that he had “bought, sold, or even used marijuana,” he did have a business that repaired semi-trucks “for a company that trafficked marijuana.”

“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, as I didn’t do anything with marijuana,” Cesal writes. “I was wrong, according to the federal court in Gainesville, Georgia.”

“My business, nestled near Chicago, was auctioned by lawyers in Georgia to pay for their services to secure the life sentence, after my home and savings were spent,” he continued.

Now, to be fair, according to court documents, it seems that Cesal’s role in marijuana trafficking was likely much larger and more involved than he lets on in his piece. For example, the documents state:

The government proffered that its evidence would establish that: (1) Cesal was part of a conspiracy to transport marijuana from Mexico through Texas into the United States; (2) Cesal arranged for drivers to transport the marijuana; (3) Cesal provided a trailer with a false ceiling to hide the marijuana; (4) one of the drivers was arrested and identified Cesal as the person to whom he was making the delivery; (5) marijuana had been delivered to Cesal’s business in a Chicago suburb; and, (6) Cesal had arranged for marijuana to be delivered to purchasers in Georgia.

The documents also state that Cesal had initially pleaded guilty, then withdrew it, which “the government interpreted . . . as breaches of the plea agreement,” which may have contributed to the sentencing.

Despite this reality, however, there is still a lot wrong with the way that this case played out. For example, in his piece, Cesal notes the irony of the fact that, since legal recreational marijuana has now been approved in the state of Illinois, some of his former “business equipment is likely again being used to repair trucks that have hauled marijuana” while he remains behind bars.

But unfortunately, that irony is far from the least fair thing about Cesal’s fate. He writes:

For over 17 years, I have watched robbers, rapists, and even murderers come and go at the prison. Last year, a guy in my cell-block who killed two federal marshals was paroled after serving 30 years. I’ve been watching the news, and I’m waiting to see if we prisoners can get the right to vote.

Make no mistake: This is an absolute outrage. Although I know my views on drugs (that they all should be legalized, and that therefore, there should have never been any need for the trafficking that Cesal got caught up in in the first place) are far too libertarian for most, I don’t know how any reasonable person could see this story and think that the criminal-justice system produced a fair outcome here. After all, as Cesal himself notes in his piece, a literal terrorist — John Walker Lindh, nicknamed “White Taliban” after shooting CIA agents in Afghanistan — was recently freed from the same prison where Cesal remains locked up, after serving only 17 years of his 20-year sentence. I don’t care how opposed you are to civil liberties, I don’t care if you are Captain Reefer Madness, you have to at least concede that aiding in the trade of a plant is at least not quite as bad as being a literal murderous terrorist.

One of the worst things about this case — like all nonviolent drug cases — is that the person in prison is not the only one who ends up getting hurt. No, the victims’ families suffer as well, and this one is no exception. Cesal is also the father of two children, and his daughter has started a petition calling on President Trump to commute his sentence.

I have signed the petition — and so should you. Freeing Cesal would be the right thing for the president to do, and, considering the fact that he freed Alice Marie Johnson after public pressure, there’s at least a chance that he would do the same here. It’s worth a try.

Now, I want to be clear that I do recognize the fact that there is a lot that needs to be done in the area of drug policy generally, that the problems go far beyond this specific case. The United States is supposed to be a free country, and yet there are countless Americans who remain locked up due to nonviolent drug infractions. The war on drugs is tearing families apart over victimless crimes, and it isn’t even accomplishing what it’s intended. In fact, it’s actually making things worse: Prohibiting certain drugs, after all, forces the people who do want to use them to turn to the black market — where they cannot know the strength or content of what they’re buying, which makes death from overdose more likely.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to stop locking people up for victimless crimes. It’s time to do away with the laws that lead to more deaths. There’s a lot that needs to change to make things sensible and fair, but at the very least, let’s start with what any logical, humane person would have to agree with: What Craig Cesal did was not worse than, or even comparable to, the actions of a terrorist, and it’s far past time to set him free.

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