was October 1992, and Jake was standing in my kitchen,
naked. He'd stripped bare because he didn't want me
thinking he was wearing a wire. It was ridiculous,
him stripping. I'd known him since we were two years
old. I trusted him. He shifted his weight from one
foot to the other, the kitchen floor cold on his bare
feet. He told me to trust no one. No one.
going to prison," he said.
you're not," I said.
I cooperate, turn someone in, which isn't gonna happen,
I'm going to prison."
didn't understand how he could be so sure. "You
haven't even been charged with anything," I said.
have me on tape," he said. "They sat me
down and told me to listen to what they had on tape.
It's bad. They want me to wear a wire. Turn in someone
else. If I do I'm charged with a state misdemeanor.
I do maybe sixty days. If I refuse I'm charged with
two felonies. Do five years, minimum mandatory."
can they do that?" I said. "Charge you however
they want for the same crime?"
can do anything they want," he said.
out he was right.
and I graduated from high school in 1985, in the midst
of the Reagan era, the "war against drugs"
and "This is your brain on drugs" public
service announcements. To us, Reagan was an actor
first, a figurehead second and a president last. Politically
or socially, we gave him and his policies little thought.
We were teenagers. The war on drugs was a war waged
against cocaine cartels out of Central and South America,
organized crack rings in New York City and South Central.
Public service announcements were fodder for jokes,
aimed more at our parents than at us.
of it pertained to us.
didn't snort or shoot, and the only thing we smoked
was pot, and for several years Jake was clean and
didn't even drink.
Jake had always been an athlete. A hockey player,
a good one, 6' 3" and 220 pounds, he was fast
and deft and fearless. He was charming, vain, witty
and cocky, a guy who was liked for the same reasons
he was disliked. In 1985, he took up cycling and quickly
became hooked. His physique wasn't best suited to
a sport whose top athletes resembled jockeys more
than linebackers, and he couldn't climb well. But
he had endurance, strength and tenacity and soon found
success racing in criteriums.
regional New England races, he got on good teams with
sponsors who afforded him free equipment, if not travel
or lodging expenses. Vermont weather didn't allow
year-long training, so he began to winter in Florida
to "keep his legs." For five years he trained
and raced from November to May. He began placing in
races that drew national teams and travelled to Atlanta,
Gainesville and Charlotte. In 1988, he raced in Oregon
in the nationals and nearly placed himself as a reserve
on the Olympic team. He was on the cusp of reaching
the next level.
But the better he became, the larger the catch-22
he found himself up against. Jake drew no financial
support from his family in a sport that, as competitiveness
heightened, began to cost him more and more for travelling
and competing. To excel, he needed money. He needed
to train and race full time, but couldn't find the
resources. Working full time to save for summer travelling
expenses left him unable to train as hard and often
as necessary during the winter. If he worked full
time in the summer, during peak racing season, in
order to have winters free to train, he couldn't get
to all the important races. He needed money. Not a
lot. A few grand, in one lump sum. Just once.
both had friends and friends of friends who grew marijuana
and sold it to a limited circle of friends. Nothing
big-time. But it was cash money.
When he returned to Burlington, Vermont, from Florida
for the summer of ’92, Jake looked into growing
and decided it was a risk he could take. He could
grow and sell enough to get a good chunk of change
up front, so he could dedicate a full year exclusively
to training and racing — take his shot.
cousin Karl was interested in growing with him. Karl
owned a house. He knew plenty of people they could
sell to. They could start plants inside, then transplant
them at night, in late May, when the chance of frost
had passed and the plants were mature enough to live
outside. It would work out. They were cousins. They
could trust each other.
had no hydroponics. Their grow lights were standard
fluorescent tubes. Neither of them knew how to clone
or sex plants. On a folding card table, beneath the
florescent lights, they put out three hundred Styrofoam
cups filled with soil and a single seed in ten rows
of thirty plants. They figured that out of three hundred
seedlings, maybe 250 would survive long enough to
be transplanted. Out of those 250 plants, half would
be worthless males. That left 125 females that stood
a chance to survive outdoors. Of those, they suspected,
half would perish from the elements and foraging animals.
They hoped for seventy mature females, at best. Thirty-five
plants each. At one-quarter to one-half pound of bud
from each plant, they might, at most, have ten pounds
each. Twenty thousand dollars, sold in pounds, the
best way to get rid of it fast.
early May, Jake drove to his cousin's house. In a
week they would transplant the plants outside. Inside
his van, he had bags of vermiculite and manure, a
few film canisters of seeds and two foxhole shovels.
parked and went up the steps to his cousin’s
was a sunny spring afternoon. The front door was open,
partly off its lower hinge. Jake called out for his
cousin, but no reply came. He walked down the hall.
As he entered the kitchen a pistol barrel was jammed
against his neck. He was pushed to the floor and his
identification was taken from his pocket. He was pulled
to his feet, a 9mm trained on his face.
were four men. They announced themselves as DEA agents.
Two looked around the room and in the cupboards, idly,
touching glasses and plates, seemingly disinterested
in what was transpiring.
other two, the one with his gun drawn, the other with
Jake's identification, stood in front of him.
one with the identification asked him what he was
didn't believe him. Why was he was really there? What
did he know about what was going on in the basement?
told them he didn't know what they were talking about.
He was visiting his cousin.
pressed. The muzzle of the 9mm remained fixed on his
maintained his ignorance. They told him if he confessed
now, rather than later, it would be better for him.
They could work with him.
grew agitated. Jake, taller and bigger than all of
them, leaned back on the counter and crossed his arms
know," the agent with his identification said.
"We know. Don't be stupid."
heart was pounding so hard and fast he was afraid
he might pass out. He felt lightheaded. But he tried
his best to remain composed. His composure pissed
the agents off.
one with the 9mm said, "So, if we go out and
check your van we're not going to find so much as
thought about the supplies in his van. He stood up
straight. "No," he said. "And when
you don't, I'm gonna sue your ass. You put a gun in
my face? Keep me here against my will?"
didn't check and he was allowed to leave. But not
before they told him to expect a call.
drove for miles, out into the country, accelerating
on straightaways to make certain he wasn't followed.
He dumped everything in his van in the woods and drove
home, the whole time feeling as if his heart might
called me and told me what had happened. He was scared.
He didn't know what to do. His cousin Karl had called
him and said he'd driven by the house and hadn't stopped
because he'd seen the front door open and he hadn't
left it that way. He'd seen two sedans parked out
front. He thought maybe they'd been found out somehow.
Jake told his cousin to stay away from the house.
Said if they nabbed him he would help. He could get
the plants out late at night in a few days, get him
a lawyer somehow. They were in this fifty-fifty. He
told his cousin not to say a word to them, if they
arrested him. To plead the fifth. Neither of them
had to go along with them.
met his cousin twice more, over the next few days.
Once on the street. Once at a diner outside of town.
They both talked about what they were going to do.
But Karl had been wearing a wire. Taped it all. He
hadn't driven by his house. He'd gone inside and the
DEA had grabbed him. He'd cut a deal. Worn a wire
against Jake in exchange for a lesser charge. A state
charge. Karl's girlfriend had ratted on them, after
she and the cousin had been in a fight.
DEA called Jake in and told him all this and offered
him the same deal. They thought Jake and Karl were
part of a big ring. That there were more people involved.
They wanted names. They wanted to cut Jake the same
were a few friends he could have fingered. But it
wasn't in him to make a friend pay for something he'd
done. "It begins and ends with me," he told
DEA had the power to charge Jake with a misdemeanor
of possession, or to charge him with cultivation with
intent to sell three hundred kilos of marijuana. A
felony. The DEA could charge him, if they wanted,
for the potential of the three hundred seedlings,
not the actual amount of marijuana he possessed, which
was three hundred seedlings, none over nine inches
tall, the entirety not weighing more than a few ounces.
The DEA's figures assumed each plant could produce
2.2 pounds of saleable marijuana, even though half
would, statistically, be useless males, half of the
remainder would likely have died and none would have
produced close to one-half the amount of bud that
the DEA projected.
of two distinct sets of charges with extremely disparate
consequences Jake would be charged with was based
on his "cooperation." It was entirely at
the DEA's discretion.
didn't cooperate, and the DEA charged him with a felony
and with bribing and coercing a federal witness. Jake's
telling his cousin to plead the fifth and not to go
along with the DEA, as well as his offer to help his
cousin financially, constituted such a crime, even
though Jake's cousin had led and coerced Jake into
the conversations and everything that was said was
said under false pretenses.
If convicted, Jake faced five years, minimum mandatory,
for the cultivation with intent; he faced another
one and one-half years for the bribing and coercing
charge. Six and one-half years in all. No probation.
No parole. Felonious drug charges carried the only
minimum mandatory sentencing in the country; federal
judges had no jurisdiction in this matter and could
not consider leniency for any reason, even if the
defendant was a first-time, non-violent drug offender.
In no other situation were judges' hands so tied.
No other crime carried a minimum sentence that did
not allow for parole or probation.
was tried and convicted. The DEA had the tapes—that
was enough. At the sentencing trial, I sat directly
behind my friend. His attorney argued, pleaded, with
the judge for leniency. He told the judge about my
friend's cycling career, how far he'd come on his
own. He told the judge how his client was not a big-time,
highly organized drug dealer. The setup was a card
table and Styrofoam cups, the lighting amateur. His
client made a bad choice — a stupid, regrettable
choice. He picked up a shoebox and took the cover
off and approached the bench. He tilted the box in
order for the judge to see its contents. "This,"
the attorney said. "This," he lifted up
a few scraggly dried greens and let them fall back
into the box. "This is what we're going to send
this young man to prison for? Someone with a clean
record? For six and a half years? He's twenty-five
now. He'll be thirty-two when he gets out."
judge leaned forward and folded his hands together.
hear what you're saying," he said. "And
I understand it. I appreciate it. If I could, I'd
sentence the defendant to eighteen months and suspend
most of it. He'd do his time. To think about what
he's done. I'd give him a break, but let him know
if I ever saw him back here I'd sentence him to ten
years without blinking. I'd give him a chance, but
I can't. I don't have the power. I wish I did. I don't
know how they expect judges to do their jobs, and
I don't like that my hands are tied. But that's how
sentenced Jake to six and one-half years for half
a shoebox of dried seedlings.
cousin received sixty days in the state correctional
But it doesn't end there. Vermont has no federal penitentiary
and the government had to find Jake a prison. For
several weeks he was held in numerous federal prisons
and state correctional facilities in Vermont, New
York and New Jersey. At one point he was flown to
Oklahoma, though I didn't—nor did his family—know
where he was at the time. His phone calls had stopped,
and he'd disappeared.
one day I came home to find a message on my machine.
Jake was singing: "I fell down in a burning ring
of fire / And I burned burned burned, as the flames
grew higher." Then he spoke: "I'll call
you soon. I just spent a week in hell."
had been flown to Oklahoma, though he hadn't known
where he was at the time. No one would tell him. He'd
ended up in a high-security prison because of "lack
of space" in other facilities. For a week he
was kept in an eight-by-eight-foot cell. His bed was
a steel cot, bolted to the floor. He was allowed no
reading materials. His window was a one-by-one-foot
steel plate with pencil-sized holes drilled into it.
slept little; all night inmates howled and guards
yelled for their silence. There was a television at
the end of his cell block. It ran twenty-four hours
a day, the volume up loud. Once a day, two guards
came, and one held a shotgun on him as they slid his
meals through a mail slot–sized door. He showered
every other day with the help of two guards. One held
the shotgun on him as he knelt, his back to his cell
door, and inched backward on his knees to put his
hands through the bars. He was handcuffed; a guard
was let in to shackle his legs; shackled, he was unhandcuffed
from the bars and handcuffed again, his hands in front
of him. He was guided out at the point of the shotgun
to the showers, where he was given soap and three
minutes with the cold water. The first day there,
realizing he wasn't where he should be—legally
he was supposed to be held in a low-security prison—he'd
tried to tell a guard he was in the wrong place.
not supposed to be here," he said.
guard, who carried a sawed-off twelve gauge, ignored
him on his first couple passes by the cell. On the
guard's third pass, Jake again said, "I don't
think I'm supposed to be here."
The guard turned abruptly and leaned in, glaring.
"You say something?" he said. Jake began
to respond, to tell him there'd been a mistake, when
the guard barked, "I didn't think so. I didn't
think you said anything," and walked away.
was transported to Fort Dix, New Jersey—a federal
penitentiary on part of an old air force base.
I visited Jake in New Jersey over the months and years.
Each time he had changed. He'd started out by saying
how crazy it was in there and talked of his hopes
that the minimum mandatory laws would be overturned
and he'd be grandfathered. But his hope waned. And
with his hope went his faith—his faith in justice,
in the law and in an individual's protection from
cruel and unusual punishment. He became disillusioned.
In prison it became clear to him that many of the
numbers used on the nightly news as evidence of victory
in the war on drugs were drawn from cases like his.
The numbers for "time served" were bolstered
by minimum mandatory laws. Many, if not most, of the
convicted were first-time, non-violent offenders incarcerated
for growing marijuana, not for violent involvement
in underworld cartels selling crack or cocaine or
heroin, as news reports might lead you to believe.
the second year, Jake began to talk of "friends"
he'd made inside. Pharmacists who'd taken their business
into the home and set up labs. Embezzlers. Guys inside
for less than he'd done. Guys who were serving five
additional years because the homes in which they grew
also happened to have shotguns and rifles in them
at the time of the arrest—shotguns and rifles
used for hunting, stored in gun cabinets, on display
in living rooms—not sawed-off shotguns, or Uzis,
or Mac 10s or AK-47s hidden under beds and kept in
case the DEA came breaking down the door.
He'd become bitter and hardened and resentful. He'd
begun to adopt the philosophy that the government
had no useful purpose, that everyone inside had been
wronged, cheated in some way. I warned him against
thinking that way. I told him to try to remember who
he was before all this had happened. His goals. His
beliefs. He told me he'd have done one year in state
prison if he'd had to, served time that suited his
crime and not blamed others for his paying for what
he'd done. But this. This was a nightmare. Six and
a half years, he kept saying. Gone was any thought
of the Olympics or ever again cycling competitively.
Gone were his twenties. He regretted what he'd done,
but his resentment toward his unfit punishment overwhelmed
all other thoughts. He began to speak of guys on the
inside who could help him when he got out. He began
to take part in the game of survival inside. Favors.
The bartering and trading of drugs and other contraband.
He had a job mowing the lawns on the air force base;
low security allowed that. He told me of a woman with
whom a friend of his who'd been released had set him
up. They met in the woods and had sex on his lunch
breaks. He was walking a thin line. Any violation
and he could get another year or two tacked on. But
his anger drove him. I told him that these guys weren't
friends. But he argued otherwise. I didn't understand.
These were guys he could relate to. Guys who understood
him, who knew him well, as I once had.
In the spring of 1994, Jake learned that the Federal
Sentencing Commission, a government commission whose
duties include looking into the constitutionality
of laws, particularly federal, was looking into the
basis for his being charged, into how someone could
be charged with cultivation with intent to sell three
hundred kilos of marijuana when, in actuality, they
only possessed a few ounces.
hopes resurged and his rancor leveled, if it didn't
lessen. Word was, the Commission was being swayed.
They were to vote soon, and it looked promising that
they would deem the basis on which his charges were
founded to be unconstitutional, and he, along with
fifteen thousand others convicted on the same premise,
would be released. At that time, he'd been inside
for about twenty months. If he could get out now,
he might be saved from the path he was going down.
there was a snag. The Clinton administration was unveiling
their massive crime bill, and with that at the forefront
of the media, the Federal Sentencing Commission's
vote was put off. How would it look if fifteen thousand
convicted drug felons were released during the passing
of a tough crime bill?
the summer of 1995, the Commission did vote that the
DEA's basis for charging offenders for the potential
of their plants was unconstitutional. The most that
the DEA could now charge a person in possession of
immature plants or seedlings with was four ounces
would be released, but not until Congress passed the
amendment into the law based on the Commission's findings.
He would have to wait until October of 1996, four
years after being sentenced.
he was released, he was still a convicted felon. For
six months after his release, he was under house arrest,
wearing an anklet with a homing device, reporting
to his parole officer weekly, unable to leave the
state and unable to leave his house except for work
and four allotted hours on Saturdays. He is on probation
until 2002. In all, ten years of his freedom will
have been lost, more than most arsonists, murderers
and rapists will lose in Vermont for first offenses.
I watch the news now and see a big bust, consisting
of tons of marijuana or pounds and pounds of cocaine
or heroin or hash, when I hear of bribing and coercion,
and that the DEA seized weapons, I cannot help but
think of the evening of my friend's sentencing and
how the local news reported it: "Today Jake____
was convicted to five years in federal prison for
the cultivation and possession of, with intent to
sell, three hundred kilograms of marijuana, with a
street value of over $750,000. He will also serve
eighteen months for bribing and coercing a federal
think of the image that conjures for an unaware public,
and for those keeping score in the "war on drugs."
And I think of the sixty days in a state correctional
center that Jake’s cousin received—and
how the minimum mandatory law still stands.
then I think of the shoebox.