Steve Green has epilepsy. His wife, Maria, has multiple sclerosis. Since 2011, they’ve been growing cannabis for medical use.
Everything they do is perfectly legal under state law in Michigan, where the couple resides. Maria is a registered caregiver—meaning that she’s allowed to grow 12 plants per patient—and both are qualifying patients.
Nonetheless, in 2013 Children’s Protective Services came in and removed the couple’s six-month-old unweaned infant, Bree. According to Steve, “Bree was ordered removed from our home because the judge said it was an inherently dangerous situation, that people could break in to steal the marijuana and steal the baby.”
The removal came despite the fact that the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act notes, “A person shall not be denied custody or visitation of a minor for acting in accordance with this act, unless the person’s behavior is such that it creates an unreasonable danger to the minor that can be clearly articulated and substantiated.”
Sara Arnold, the director and co-founder of the Massachusetts-based Family Law and Cannabis Alliance (FLCA), a national nonprofit organization founded in 2013 and dedicated to advocating for medical marijuana parents, said that the Greens’ story is not unique. “It is extremely common,” she said.
She knows a thing or two about it because in addition to being an advocate and policy expert, Arnold is a medical marijuana parent herself.
“I was investigated by CPS for neglect three times for my medical marijuana use,” Arnold said. “My story is common; I was investigated after the birth of my first child after self-disclosure to my prenatal care provider and twice more from mandated reporters.” By law, people in certain professions—or in some states, all citizens—are mandated to report potential or actual neglect and abuse, which specifically includes drug use. She continued, “One of the mandated reporters had never met my child nor seen me parent her and had only read ‘medical marijuana’ in my medical records mentioned by a (supportive) physician; and the other did not want to make the report but believed they were mandated to do so.
“The outcome of these investigations resulted in the allegations not being substantiated and no further action taken by CPS, but investigation by CPS is still an intrusive, traumatic experience for any family—much less three times for the same thing. It is also a huge waste of limited CPS resources that is taking case workers away from real child neglect and abuse.”
Like Arnold, the Greens eventually got their daughter back—but only after six weeks of expensive legal wrangling.
Although the above cases were in Massachusetts and Michigan, those states aren’t cherry-picked examples. Arnold explained that similar situations happen everywhere: “This is a problem throughout the country. Obviously some states are worse than others (like Texas and Florida) but you might find it surprising that even states with mature medical marijuana programs still investigate their patients who are also parents. Even CPS in medical and legal Colorado still regularly and consistently investigate medical marijuana patients.”
Heather Thompson, a molecular biology PhD who works as the deputy director of a nonprofit known as The Elephant Circle, said that often CPS might get involved before the child is even born. Because the Denver-based organization advocates for new mothers, Thompson has become acquainted with the surprising ways in which legalization has played out in Colorado. Instead of creating a more permissive environment, Thompson said that legalization has created among medical professionals a heightened awareness of cannabis and thus some hospitals are now more likely to drug test newborn babies. She said, “That’s where federal law trumps state law—because it is Schedule 1 it is legal for someone at the hospital to test a baby for THC without the parents’ consent or knowledge. Then if they test positive, because it’s for a Schedule 1, then they have to involve CPS.”
She continued, “If a baby tests positive, it’s automatically a charge of neglect and abuse. There is no evidence to say that drug use equals abuse, but because of the climate in Colorado there’s a very punitive attitude toward parents in general who use marijuana.”
Thompson is not the only advocate quick to note the problems caused by conflicting federal and state laws; it’s something Jennifer Ani is very familiar with, too. Ani is a California-based attorney and child welfare specialist who handles cases where legal medical marijuana users and growers find themselves running afoul of CPS.
To some extent, funding is the source of the problem. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), was originally enacted in 1974 as a federal law to allocate CPS funding to states that meet certain federal standards. Ani said, “That’s where marijuana comes in. How do you reconcile that with medical marijuana laws?”
After a 2003 revision, CAPTA now requires states to have policies in place to report and address situations in which infants are born “affected” by illegal substance abuse. That can be problematic both because cannabis is still an illegal substance on the federal level and because the line between use and abuse can be unclear.
Ani said that, once the child is born, “Just the fact that a parent is breaking a federal law is not enough to remove a child [in California]. Regardless of the substance, in California, a parent can use any substance they want to as long as they’re not abusing it and that abuse does not affect the child.” Of course, whatever the law says, Ani said that the children of medical marijuana users are still being removed on a regular basis.
“It’s a problem,” Ani said, “because there’s so much ignorance as to the fact that it’s not harmful. Not only is it not harmful but it does not cause serious physical harm, as the law requires.”
In fact, according to Thompson, existing literature doesn’t even support the idea that marijuana use is harmful during pregnancy: “There has been research on pregnancy and marijuana since 1982 and Canada has been doing it since 1978, and there are very few clinical effects of marijuana. It does not seem to affect growth. If you take the literature as a whole, it does not seem to affect babies negatively in a way that can be documented.”
In a sense, Thompson said, it’s like the crack-baby myths of the 1980s and 1990s. The crack-baby myth—the belief that crack cocaine use during pregnancy would cause major damage to the fetus—grew out of a lack of well-designed studies and thus a lack of understanding. Now, medical marijuana users are facing a similar lack of understanding.
As Ani put it, “Families are being separated because of idiocy and incompetence and a failure to understand cannabis.”
As of now, some states—like Michigan—have language that should theoretically protect medical marijuana parents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. As cited above, the law says that medical marijuana should only affect custody if “the person’s behavior is such that it creates an unreasonable danger to the minor that can be clearly articulated and substantiated.” However, Arnold explained, “There is no definition of ‘unreasonable danger’ or ‘clearly articulated and substantiated.’ What this has often been interpreted to mean (including in Michigan) is that a) investigation is required of any parent found to use marijuana to ensure that there is no reasonable danger and b) that it can be widely subjective, to the point where the marijuana use itself…can simply be a sign of ‘unreasonable danger.’”
Despite the struggles medical marijuana parents are facing, Arnold remains optimistic. She explained that FLCA offers model language for parent-protective initiatives, such as one that has already been proposed in Massachusetts.
“Marijuana reformers,” she said, “are waking up to the fact that parental rights for patients matter, and social workers are waking up to the fact that it shouldn't be their job to continue the war on marijuana to the detriment of children and families.”
We’re all familiar with the very American crash and burn narrative of addiction: Famous such and such spirals downward, sinking slowly into a grey stew of despair. While it may be entertaining, and may result in one more dreary recovery memoir, it all feels groundless, reinforcing my baseline pessimism.
But once in a while local heroes, such as Durango Joe, the man you’re about to meet from River Falls, Wisconsin, gets the spotlight. I don’t always enjoy when my somewhat pessimistic disposition gets challenged, but Durango Joe, the man who owns four Dodge Durangos accessorized with purple lights and roaring mufflers (he tweaked them to be extra loud) forces me to confront the good in people. After getting out of jail for his eighth DWI, he decided to drive drunk people, on donation, home from local bars. Durango Joe knows the power of service and cherishes his community.
I called Joe up to get his story. When I asked him where he was he told me he was parked, sitting in his Dodge Durango, of course.
So you have received eight DWIs...that's a lot. How old were you when you picked up your first one?
My first DWI came when I turned 21. The second one came when I was 23...24 and again at 28—
Ah, OK. I think I get it. Did you ever try any treatment, like an in-patient?
Yeah, when I was younger. On maybe my fourth DWI, my probation officer said, "Joe, I'll put you into treatment." Well, I was in a treatment center for 28 days and I was drunk every day in there. Staff would let me go to the YMCA so I could work out my frustrations. On the walk down, there was a gas station and I'd pick up a bottle of Nyquil. I'd slam that down and when I got back to the treatment facility, I'd be just...wow! I'll tell you what, drinkin' Nyquil is really bad.
So I obviously failed at that attempt and shortly after I was in another car wreck. But this one—seriously—was not my fault. A guy ran into me and totaled my roommate’s truck. I went to prison on that one as an ATR (alternative to revocation). I was locked up for a whole year and then went in for four months to the actual prison system, but I didn't go all the way through the prison system. They just put me in a prison to let me see what it was like. They then pulled me out and asked, "Did you learn anything yet?"
No. The day I walked out of prison my roommate came and picked me up. Sitting in the front seat was a six-pack of beer and a bottle of rum. I fixed myself a drink and slammed down three of those beers. I was drunk before the two miles from there to the highway.
To backpedal, you said "another car wreck"—how many of those were you involved in?
I've been in several car wrecks where people look at the car and wonder how in the hell did you walk out of that? Being drunk, you flop around a lot.
I had a ’57 Chevy once, one of those quarter-mile cars. Had some pretty big sponsors too, like Marlboro and Snap-on Tools. Well, we were looking for a driver and this guy was showing me how he could drive. So we went out for a spin, I was drunk and he was drunk. But I thought he was sober, I mean, he’s a race car driver. Turned out he was pretty drunk. He took a corner doing 130 mph and we were launched into the air, spinning three times before hitting the ground. Then we hit and rolled several more times. Probably should be dead.
While serving time for your eighth DWI you sat in on a Victim Impact Panel. There, people told you their stories. That seems to really have been a turning point for you with the whole drunk-driving habit. What was it you heard that stuck with you?
The wife of a man who died driving drunk told her story. She said he was going 60 mph and he hit a tree head on. He flew out of the truck and smashed through the windshield with his body. It took the cops a while to find him because he flew so damn far away from the scene of the accident. She was so devastated. She even lay with him in the morgue for an entire day before he went in the ground.
So I listened to that and it was like watching my life play out in front of me. It put me in a place to reflect. Being in prison—the real deal prison this time—it was all so humiliating. Your dignity gets taken away. You get told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to ask. If you want clothes, you have to ask. If you want to eat, you stand in line and march to the food.
That all took a big toll on my inner-person. I saw what was becoming of me and I said, “Hey, I don't like this. I don't want to ever come back to this.” I wanted to change but there was only one way I could. I had to reach down deep inside myself and pull out what was holding me down.
What’d you find?
All my life it was really about not being loved. I was pushed out of the family. I was the black sheep. I was always made fun of in school. I was always the kid that got picked on. I was bullied.
A lot of people confront themselves and feel deeply that their lives are not turning out the way they had planned—yet they continue to self-destruct. What keeps you on the path you want to be on? Like, why the eighth DWI, and not the ninth or tenth?
This time I had truly admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic. Admitting it, saying it, and believing it, and knowing that’s what kept me down. Was there anything ever good about alcohol? Oh yeah, a few good parties here and there but how much did it cost me? All my drinking and DWIs probably cost me some $365,000 in money, houses and cars, but most of all, relationships and family. It really cost me everything.
I truly wanted to change and what I had to do was confront all of that.
It keeps me going. Life is not a smooth path. But the Creator gave me a beautiful life. What I have here is a beautiful thing and I'm just trying to help people. If I drink, I won't be able to help anybody. I won't be giving back. I'll lose what I have and maybe even my life. Is the drink worth it? To me, not anymore.
So you’re being of service now. What gave you the idea to start driving drunken people around?
I worked at a cookie factory and we'd gather around and watch the news. These young kids would be walking from downtown St. Paul and some would freeze to death because they were walking home so drunk, and they’d pass out before making it home. Up here in River Falls, kids were doing the same thing. When you're that drunk, it thins your blood. If it's that cold out and you're walking a ways, it's dangerous. So it made me think: these kids need rides to get home safe. I don't want to see kids die because they drank too much.
Do you tend to pick up people who have been down that same dark path as you?
I pick people up all the time and you know what they say, it only takes two to have an AA meeting. I am my own traveling AA meeting. People call me up for a ride and they hop in the car and sometimes the conversation just goes there. So every day I'm getting a meeting in, whether I like it or not [laughs].
If someone needs a ride to a job, I drive ‘em. I've also helped a few people become able to stabilize their life far enough for them to eventually buy their own vehicle, pay the insurance, put gas in it, and really get themselves on their own without using me anymore. That is such a nice feeling. [sobs]. When I can do something like that for somebody.
Just picked up this man. He was homeless and needed a ride. He was trying to get Social Security, trying to build his life back up. I looked in this man's eyes... saw so much sadness, so much despair, and he had no money [sobs], he was living under a bridge. I wished I could do more for him.
But you did what you could, Joe.
At least I could help him with the ride. He'll remember that, I hope.
You showed this man care, I bet a lot of people walk right past him without blinking an eye.
Yeah, I've been there. I know it. I also sport purple in my logo to support the women of domestic violence. I had a woman, my significant other; she was in a bad situation, where if I didn't pull her out, she may not be here. I try to help the women, drop them off at the shelter where they can get away. These people touch me and I try to touch them back.
But I've stuck everything in my company and now I'm broke.
The police chief shut me down until I can get my paperwork in order. I’m running on empty now.
Why’d he shut you down?
He doesn't like me very much because of my record. He compared me to a sex offender. I can't pick people up in River Falls until I have the proper license for running a taxicab service. But I've got the ex-city attorney on my side and the former mayor on my side. I found out that the chief couldn’t deny me the license. I can get it and they have to issue it.
But he can still make my life a living hell. Even if I get a parking ticket, he can yank the license.
Why does he have it out for you—because you’re an ex-drunk?
The original name of my company, back in 2013, was "Durango Joe's Sober Ride." The chief hated that and would not allow the people or children of his town to get in a car with a guy who has eight DWIs. He mentioned statistics showing everyone relapses and told me I'd relapse.
I then changed the name to "Durango Joe's Free Will Rides" because I was giving the choice to the people. If you want to ride with me and need a ride, I am here. Nobody can tell you that you cannot ride with me.
But he really shut me down because I take donations and he said that I'm running a business for hire because people give me donations. I understand his point of view but he also has to try and open up his mind a little bit, you know. People can get better and people can do some good.
I think it's really sad the chief is giving you a hard time. But you can show him up by keeping doing what you're doing.
I've had my ups and downs getting this off the ground. But I won't hit the bottle because I like what I do. I like helping people. My life is beautiful. There is a lovely woman in my life. I own four Durangos. I never had so much in my life.
I've even got my son back. He talks to me now. I got to see my grandchildren for the first time ever in their lives—my oldest one is 12 and the two little ones, twins, are seven. I got to see them for the first time on Father's Day.
A lot of good things have come out of what I do…Sorry, I get a little emotional thinking about all of this.
It's powerful stuff, Joe. Anything you'd like to say to the people reading this?
Believe in what you do. And thank you so much for this interview, I feel a lot better.
Thank you for your work, Joe. I feel pretty good, too.
Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed Marc Lewis. Follow him on twitter.
If you’re ever drunk and in need of a ride in Wisconsin or the Twin Cities, call up Durango Joe, the redemptive designated driver.
President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people last week but Tim Tyler wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. As President Obama visited FCI El Reno in Oklahoma pushing prison reform, Tim Tyler played handball at FCI Jesup in Georgia going on 24 years of straight confinement. President Obama let out a bunch of men serving life sentences with crack cocaine charges, and rightly so, but maybe he can find it in his wisdom to let out Tim Tyler who is serving life for a small amount of LSD as part of our government’s three-strike laws. Tim Tyler was no saint but he deserves to get his sentence commuted as much as anyone. This is his story.
Tim Tyler was a Deadhead. He was into the whole culture and scene, following the band around in the late '80s and early '90s. Living the life as a counterculture outlaw, off the grid, as they say. A romantic notion left over from the '60s. A remnant of tune out, take a hit and drop out. But even though he embraced the outlaw culture of The Grateful Dead, he wasn’t a criminal, so to speak.
He didn’t carry a gun. He wasn’t a violent dude. He just sold acid.
Tim was a peace-loving hippie who spread the gospel of LSD and Jerry Garcia. But as he was embarking on his long strange trip, the federal government was busy enacting the mandatory minimums and federal sentencing guidelines as a part of their oppressive War on Drugs. As Tim galavanted around the country making sure people were tripping out like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, the DEA and drug war soldiers were targeting LSD dealers just as aggressively and adamantly as they did crack dealers from the inner-city—where cops were getting shot, crack babies were being born and mothers, sisters and daughters were prostituting themselves out for a hit of crack cocaine.
The Deadheads might have thought they were above it all, with their lofty ideals and devil-may-care attitudes, but the government had other plans. Undercover narcotic cops went on tour and conducted buys. They engrained themselves in the community, dong business with the unsuspecting hippies and making arrests. Tim got caught up in it all and now he is doing life in prison for LSD. Another non-violent offender that has been in jail for far too long. His case consisted of only a couple thousand hits of LSD, but he is doing life. We spoke with him to see how he is holding up and what he thinks about his likelihood of getting out of prison now that President Obama is commuting the sentences of non-violent lifers.
“I never even considered being free until about 18 months ago. I still cannot feel it.” Tim tells The Fix from his prison cell at FCI Jesup in Georgia. The reality is, with marijuana being legalized and the national consciousness shifting away from the "lock them up and throw away the key" mentality, Tim stands a good chance of being pardoned in some form or fashion, if only as a political statement on the injustice of the federal sentencing guidelines that were enacted by Congress in the late '80s and have incarcerated tens of thousands of non-violent drug offenders.
“Tim has served more than enough time in prison. He's been incarcerated for 23 years now, on a life-without-parole sentence for selling LSD,” TIm’s sister, Carrie tells us. “If he were sentenced for the same crime today, he would have received less time. If the Clinton Administration hadn't reduced the time to appeal, Tim's appeal would not have been rejected due to the time limit. Bill Clinton reduced the time for appeal to one year. Tim missed that date by one month.” His case was time-barred from being heard, even if it had merits.
“I had a friend who did a 2255 in USP Atlanta in 1995. He did it for free for me,” Tim tells The Fix. “I sent it in and a copy to my dad who was in FCI Marianna at the time. He showed it to a guy there and that guy convinced my dad to hire him for $5,000 and let him do a better one. I put in a motion to withdraw without prejudice. The guy took too long to redo it and they passed the 1996 anti-terrorism bill. So they denied the new one based on [me being] out of time. Then they refused to further give me a certificate of appealability. So I never had one heard.” And almost 20 years later, he still sits buried in the belly of the beast. But there are more complications to Tim’s case.
“Adjudication was withheld on one of his prior charges, which was used to enhance his sentence from 17 years to life,” Carrie informs us. “A person should not do more than two to three years in prison for most anything unless they are a direct threat to the general public safety. People stop learning a lesson after that amount of time. Prison does more harm than good in most circumstances. A person becomes withdrawn, frightened, depressed and institutionalized, and they give up on any kind of future after that amount of time. They start wearing the label of inmate and 'felon' and criminal. They are just a number. They are demoralized and beaten emotionally.” There are many compelling reasons to release Tim but getting a raw deal is first and foremost.
“I had actually pled nolo contender to that charge,” Tim tells The Fix. "The judge felt bad for me to even plead guilty. But she also did not tell me that by pleading guilty I was giving up certain rights, like it can be used against you in the future. So they basically screwed me over the whole way. Without career criminal, I would have received 20 years for this current charge. I have been in 23 now.” A punishment that flies in the face of what our country is supposed to stand for. But there has been a concerted effort to get Tim out of prison.
“My sister has tried to change the whole country's drug laws to get me out,” Tim says. “She has been responsible for getting me all of the press coverage, including getting Rand Paul to talk about me in the Washington Post 15 months ago. Plus, he has talked about me within the past two weeks at school conferences. CNN and Rolling Stone (have covered the story), all because of my sisters relentless work and caring about me. Instead of just helping me, she decided it would be better to help the whole system out. Julie Stewart from FAMM became a friend to my sister. She told someone about me and since then she has told plenty of people about me. The ACLU placed me and five other prisoners in magazines all around the country including Jet, Ebony, Mother Jones and more. The article said, 'All these people are doing life for a non-violent crime.' The support for his release has been tremendous and if Tim got out right now, he knows what he would do.
“I would work with my sister and build her online business selling herbs that heal people,” he tells The Fix. “She has had it for close to 10 years and paid taxes on it. She would hire me and I would consider vending organic food on the side on weekends. As the song, 'Wharf Rat' goes, 'Half of my life I spent doing time for some other fucker's crime.' I can relate to that in a way. I have been in half my life: 23 to 46. I also would not buy or sell anything illegal again. I considered what I was doing to be sharing sacrament. Now they have something established as a sacrament called ayahuasca that is from the Earth. The Earth knows sacred better than I do, so I will just listen to what it has to say.” Tim might get his chance soon enough with the changing climate in our country and Obama’s announcement on clemency.
But in his sister’s eyes, it has all been a waste. “Tim having to spend all these years in prison. I think the whole drug war is absurd,” she says. “I think all drugs should be decriminalized. For the past few decades, we, as a nation have been throwing people away. Throwing away good, honest kids that could have bright futures had they not made a mistake or two, or three. Since when are people disposable? What happened to us that we could let this happen for so long? The president should let out all non-violent drug offenders who have served three years or more. Half of the prison population is in there for drug offenses. They should all be let out.”
Not all will be let out, but maybe a few will. Tim stands a good chance to get out. His sister agrees. “I think Tim has a reasonable chance to get clemency,” she tells The Fix. “He fits the criterion requirements by the Obama Administration and Justice Department. I can only pray about it.” But praying is not all she has done. She has fought his whole sentence to get him out.
“I prayed quite a bit. Others just came into my life to help Tim seemingly out of nowhere. A lot of people got on board to help Tim,” she says. “He has a lot of fans he doesn't even know about. Good people who want to see fair justice have stepped up to help us get attention to his case. But, there is only one person who can issue Tim clemency, and that is President Obama.” Now it is time for him to sign the paperwork to commute Tim’s sentence. The president made it public about what he is going to do, now make it official and let Tim Tyler out.