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While You’re Lighting Up on 4/20, I’m Serving Decades in Prison for Selling Weed

I was sentenced in 1998 to 40 years in prison for selling marijuana. Even as it is decriminalized, I remain behind bars.

April 20, 2023, is the day for many consumers to celebrate cannabis. Some will seize it as an opportunity to get high and have fun. Activists will push for legalization in states where cannabis consumption is still illegal. Cannabis dispensaries will promote the industry and its products; and many notable musicians will perform at events, such as the Cannabis Cup, where they’ll pitch the sales up on behalf of the vendors who’ll be showing off their finest marijuana products to tens of thousands of event goers.

As for me, I will be sitting in a twelve-by-ten prison cell in the hills of Alabama, away from civilization, wishing I was free, and fantasizing of a world full of joy, laughter and love; and dreaming of a life I wish I had, in which the intimacy of my wife would give me comfort, in which my children’s unconditional love would bring me happiness. But those are just wishes, fantasies, dreams, thoughts and mental illusions to deceive my imprisoned soul.

Since 1998, when I was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Houston Police, and later convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for conspiracy to sell and distribute cannabis, I’ve tried to comprehend the gravity of my punishment for a nonviolent cannabis crime (essentially when no guns, money, or drugs were found on me), without finding a legitimate answer.

They say a man isn’t supposed to cry (even under these dire circumstances). I steadily believed it — from the moment I walked into the belly of the beast — randomly walking the prison corridors like a zombie, suppressing the painful feelings of regret, shame and guilt, until one day they decided to burst wide open, prompting me to attempt to take my own life. It didn’t happen, thank God. Eventually I learned to play the cards, learned to cheat life from a confined state of mind. I chose to survive, going against the voices telling me, “I just wanna die!”

The past twenty-four 4/20s spent behind bars have had their moments. Springs and summers have come and gone — like written songs that were never sung. Christmases dark and joyless. Birthdays awash with loneliness. Rigid penal mechanisms and iron-fisted rules gnawing away at my dignity and self-worth.

By God’s grace I’m still standing in a turbulent, volatile atmosphere where a simple act of disrespect in the form of moving someone’s chair in the TV room, or walking in front of someone watching television, without saying “excuse me,” can cause you to get stabbed with a homemade knife (I witnessed it once); in a place where the uprising of gang politics, depending on which group you belong to, either the Crips, the Bloods, the Sureños, the Aryan Brotherhood, Paisas, gangster disciples, vice lords, and on and on, can test your courage and tenacity to survive — even though I don’t belong to any of them; in an environment where viral illnesses plaguing prison cells and warehouse-looking dormitories, with incarcerated people packed like sardines, breathing the same recycled air and sharing the same laundered prison clothes and blankets on a weekly basis, can do you mental and physical harm. COVID-19 has already gripped me more than once.

The only subtle, refreshing feeling I look forward to each morning is the dawn’s light streaming through the barred window at the back of my prison cell as I open my eyes to endure another day in confinement. But even such refreshment rapidly fades into a discouraging feeling of melancholy, reminding me, “Edwin, you still have 10 more years left to serve.”

If I were to die today, it is painfully obvious no one would remember me except for my family. No one would pay me any mind. Not the politicians and judges who have the power to grant me reprieve. Not the cannabis dispensaries who vaguely represent those “left behind” (the cannabis prisoners who are still imprisoned for a product they are now profiting from). Not the musicians and celebrities pitching sales at cannabis events. Not even the Waldos or the Grateful Dead.

It reminds me of a biblical passage from Psalm 142 I once read: “I look for someone to come help me, but no one gives me a passing thought … no one cares a bit of what happens to me. … All I can do is pray, ‘Lord, … hear my cry for I’m very low. … Bring me out of prison so I can thank you … for you treat me kindly.'”

It also reminds me of a few poetic lines I once wrote:

I am walled in and chained up — without hope of escape

Branded with putrid savageness — numbered without a name

In my despair I remain silent — in my grief I remain broken

Comfort has eluded me — freedom taken wing

I imagine a life in retrospect — a life splayed with love

a life full of joy — a life full of purpose

A throe awakens me — my gullible mind has run its reel

My life only a credulous illusion — a fantasy a dream

A cesspool of opprobrium and rejection and failure

At this late stage of the game, my physical freedom seems farther than ever. As painful as it feels, I have to accept the fact that I’m just another number lost in the belly of the beast, an unredeemable monster in the eyes of my captors, too dangerous to set free. An invisible man, an unknown hero, who refused to give up names of others in the illegal cannabis trade; who bit the bullet for a product the United States celebrates today.

And even if there’s a faint ember of hope left out in the distance, for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws], cannabis activists, prison reform organizations, and others to collectively find new, innovative ways to demand the release of those harmed by the “war on drugs” — and not through letters of request to the White House and Congress where they’ll meet the same fate of shredded disappointment in a bureaucratic maze as happened to my poor Mom and family back in 2016, near the conclusion of the Obama administration, when they mailed 1000 personal letters to 150 state representatives and 100 senators pleading their support for my clemency petition, only to receive three letters in reply, saying, “We can’t help. Find other ways.” — such hope would just get crushed under the premise that it has often been said, “the wheels of justice grind slowly” … but in this situation they seem to have turned glacial, frozen, unable to turn.

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