Richard Stratton, the former editor of High Times magazine, knows a thing or two about marijuana. Not only has he written in depth about the subject, he also spent years as a drug smuggler, moving millions of dollars of the product—a path that ultimately landed him a 25-year sentence, of which he served eight. Since his release two decades ago, Stratton has become one of the most successful and prolific ex-cons, writing novels, producing award-winning films and running a TV series not so loosely based on his life. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme asks Stratton the straight dope about decriminalization, prison reform and his refusal to rat out Norman Mailer.
City & State: Were you surprised when Governor Cuomo announced that he was going to push for the decriminalization of marijuana possession up to 25 grams?
Richard Stratton: Not really, because I think that any smart politician really sees that the writing on the wall is that decriminalization and legalization is inevitable. They say there were three reasons why Prohibition ended: the Depression, the Depression and the Depression. I think the three reasons why ultimately marijuana will be legalized are the Recession, the Recession, the Recession, particularly in states like California and New York, where you have a major underground market that is huge. People don’t even begin to realize how much money is being made in the illegal market of growing and distributing marijuana. For the government not to be getting a piece of that is stupid.
CS: You have dealt with a lot of marijuana. Is 25 grams a substantial amount of marijuana?
RS: No, it’s like an ounce. It’s not a lot of marijuana.
CS: Were you surprised at all when the Senate Republicans rejected Cuomo’s decriminalization effort?
RS: You know, I was surprised, because I’ve always believed that it’s a Republican issue. You’re talking about those values that Republicans supposedly hold dear, like personal liberty and less involvement of the state in our personal lives. That’s really what it’s about. The laws against marijuana do not make any sense at all. It’s so irrational and so costly to the American culture as a whole that you’d think that smart Republicans would say, “You know what? This is anti-American, and we should open it up and we should legalize it” —but they don’t.
CS: Don’t you feel the Republicans in the Senate would point to you as a case study as to why there shouldn’t be decriminalization of marijuana? That they would argue that’s it’s a slippery slope, and that if the government let you have a couple of grams, then soon enough a person could be on his way to becoming a multimillion-dollar drug smuggler like yourself?
RS: Since when are Republicans opposed to entrepreneurship? It’s American to make money. Again, I go back to Prohibition. Some of the greatest fortunes in this country and in North America came about as a result of Prohibition. The Kennedys, the Bronfmans and those other huge dynasties that were created on money that was made from illegal alcohol. So I don’t think it’s anti-American to make money, especially when it’s not something that’s particularly harmful. I was never involved in hard drugs, and I always felt that hard drugs were dangerous. I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that it’s not “Just Say No,” N-O, it’s “Just Say Know,” K-N-O-W. People need to know about the harms of using drugs, using alcohol, using any of these things. They need to be educated about it, but to try to make it criminal to make people stop doing it, that doesn’t make sense…. There are millions and millions of people who use marijuana in this country and don’t create a problem for other people, who don’t go out and rape and murder and start shooting heroin after using it for awhile. I grew up during that whole Reefer Madness era and we would go to school and watch these movies about what marijuana was supposed to do to you, and we’d be high and laughing, thinking, “Oh, we’re going to grow huge breasts. Then, great! We won’t have to feel our girlfriends up. We can feel ourselves up.” So it’s nuts; it’s completely insane. It’s been interesting for me. Obviously a huge part of my life has revolved around this—and still does to some degree—but as an American I really feel that we always have to be vigilant about protecting our liberties as much as possible. That’s what makes us a great country and a great society, and wherever the government tries to encroach upon our personal freedoms, we have to be pushing back—always pushing back—and marijuana is a perfect issue for that. For me it’s always been a great symbol of what we need to do as Americans, how we need to engage with the government. Say: “No; no, you can’t tell me what I can and cannot do in the privacy of my own home as long as I’m not hurting other people.”
CS: Have you seen an evolution in the public’s perception of marijuana over your lifetime?
RS: Oh, absolutely. I spent eight years in prison for importing marijuana. I was sentenced to 25 years originally and would have had to do over 20 years, because I was at “no parole.” Then, some years after I got out, I was in California walking into dispensaries and seeing 15 or 20 different strains of marijuana displayed in display cases and people being able to walk in and buy it. I was like, wait a minute, I went to prison for this. So it’s changed tremendously and, you know, the idea that medical marijuana was just an excuse that a bunch of potheads thought up to try to get pot legalized is absolute nonsense. There’s no question that it has medicinal value—a tremendous medicinal value—that is only beginning to be discovered, how valuable it is. It’s an amazing plant. It really is. I have my thoughts about how it should be used. I do believe it can be abused, like anything else, but I also believe that of all the consciousness-expanding recreational drugs it has the smallest potential for abuse.
CS: Is the use of the word drugs and the fact that we lump in marijuana with substances like heroin and methamphetamine part of the misapprehension about marijuana in this country? You drew a distinction between them, though opponents of legalization and decriminalization often bring up the line about marijuana being a “gateway drug” to more serious narcotics.
RS: Then there’s the other argument, the DEA’s argument, which is that it enriches and empowers big drug dealers, but that doesn’t make any sense at all, because it’s enriching and empowering the Mexican drug lords who make billions of dollars importing to the United States, but if it were legal that would take that away completely. As far as the “gateway drug” is concerned, I don’t think there’s any real credible evidence to that effect. The problem in the past, and it is less so now, was that when you could only get it through the black market, when you were a young person who was buying pot from a drug dealer, you were apt to come into contact with people who would then say, “You want to try some cocaine? You want to try some heroin?” So there’s that whole black-market aspect of it. That’s where the gateway possibility opens up, I think. When you’re dealing with the black market, you’re going to be subjected to all these other drugs. But if you’re walking into a dispensary and you know what you’re getting, and it’s legal, then you’re not going to be dealing with the black market, so that aspect could be eliminated.
CS: Do you think if marijuana were legalized that it would profoundly drive down the levels of incarceration and drug-related violence in this country?
RS: Well, certainly the levels of incarceration. The drug war is really the engine behind the whole prison-industrial complex. I was looking on the Internet the other day at how many federal prisons there are in this country now, and there are four times as many as when I was locked up—and that was just 20 years ago. It’s unbelievable. We have more people in prison in this country than both China and Russia put together, so that doesn’t make any sense at all, and I would say that 80 percent of them are either there because of drugs or drug-related crimes, so it is the drug war that has led to the huge expansion of our prison system. Like everything else in America, they’ve figured our how to make a business out of it. They build prisons and it gives people jobs and they put these prisons in areas of states where they need work, where the factories have closed down, and these guys that had jobs in factories go to work as guards and correctional officers in prisons, so it became an industry, the prison-industrial complex. Then there was this whole idea of these factories behind walls where you had the prisoners engaged in making things that were useful to the government and that were sold into UNICOR and these other prison industries that exist. And so it became a business, and as a business I guess it must be profitable—but of course the other thing is it’s hugely expensive to the taxpayer. I think that one of the things that threw California into the fiscal crisis it’s in now is this huge prison expansion that they went through, this rampage that they went on in the ’80s and the ’90s, and now they can’t sustain it and that’s all because of the drug war.
CS: You pointed to the high incarceration rate leading to the expansion of prisons, but do you think there’s also a motivation to keep the incarceration rate high in order to sustain all of these prisons?
RS: There’s no question about that. There was a big argument about why the whole idea of private prisons was wrong because it became the [companies’] interest to keep as many people locked up for as long as possible. [The inmates] are their commodity; they’re what they’re producing, which is sad, because you have to look at the collateral damage. Look at what it does to the culture. Look what is does to the neighborhoods where those people come from, the families that are affected by incarceration. It’s terrible. Kids grow up without their father or their mother and they become susceptible to a lot of different societal ills, because they don’t have a nuclear family there to guide them, so it’s a bad thing because what it does basically is sustain a weakening of our culture. There’s no way we should be behind something that is ultimately detrimental to our culture.
CS: Didn’t you become a lawyer in prison?
RS: I didn’t become an actual lawyer, but I became what they call a “jailhouse lawyer,” and I was very effective in getting my own sentence vacated and ultimately my getting remanded for resentencing. I still do a lot of legal work. I probably know as much about certain aspects of the law, like post-conviction relief and criminal law, certain aspects of it, as most lawyers, because I spent years and years in the law library studying the law.
CS: How did your experience in prison inform your perspective on prisons?
RS: I started a magazine called Prison Life when I got out of prison, because what really impressed me more than anything was the huge amount of talent there was behind bars; talent of all kinds—athletic talent, artistic talent—and I realized at a certain point that when you look at neighborhoods where there is very little opportunity, the most entrepreneurial, the most risk-prone, the most interesting of those kids, if they don’t have an opportunity to do something legal, they’re going to get involved in crime, chances are. They get drawn to it, because that’s where the action is and that’s where the smart guys go. Most of these guys who get locked up aren’t stupid; they’re smart, and they got involved in crime because they didn’t really have any other alternatives.
CS: With generational change, shifting attitudes toward marijuana, and such widespread usage of the drug, is decriminalization or legalization ultimately inevitable?
RS: I think that their arguments against it become more and more transparent. People don’t really believe it anymore. The reactionary knee-jerk response is dwindling. I mean, it’s been legal in California for how many years now? A long time, medically, and the state hasn’t become a bunch of potheads and heroin addicts. At least, no worse than before. Do I think 14-, 15-year old kids should be getting high and going to school? No. I don’t. But do I think they can learn to use pot responsibly? Yeah, I do. I think they can. I think they’re smart, and I think people could make a lot more headway with them if they said, “Look, we’re going to allow you to use this, but we’re going to tell you that here are the dangers and this is what you should be thinking about when you do it.”
CS: When you hear Mayor Bloomberg saying, “Yeah, I smoked pot and I enjoyed it,” and the governor and the president admit to having gotten high, do you conclude that our drug laws are just hypocritical? 0r can you understand the disconnect between people in our government having personally used drugs and wanting to take a hard line in drug enforcement?
RS: I think it’s hypocritical of them, but I also believe that government per se for some reason just never wants to admit that they’ve made a mistake, that something that they’ve been behind for many, many years was wrong. I’ve never seen that happen. I’ve never seen the government say, “You know what? We were wrong.” Never. Even when they prosecute someone and they put them in prison for many years and then find out that person wasn’t the one who did it, and DNA proves it, they’ll still say “No, no.” They’ll just never admit that they made a mistake, and I don’t know why that is. It seems so narrow-minded. I think they hate the idea that a bunch of people have been saying since the ’60s that this thing isn’t so bad and, you know what, maybe you should legalize it. They hate the idea that maybe we were right.
CS: What is it that enabled you to use your prison time so constructively and to avoid the high recidivism rate to which so many prisoners succumb?
RS: I think it has a lot of to do with the fact that I have a level of education that most people don’t have. I was a writer before I got involved in smuggling pot, and you know, it kind of happened simultaneously. I went to school in Arizona and started smuggling small amounts of weed in from Mexico, but I always was involved in writing. I always used to think to myself, ‘Well, you know, one day if I get locked up, I’ll use the time to write.’ But what happened was that very early on when I was arrested I met some guys who were part of a conspiracy called the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Very interesting bunch of guys; Rastas, white Rastas, who used to import pot, supposedly for their church. Ganja was a sacrament, and their defense was “Freedom of religion, blah, blah, blah.” And I met the leader in a county jail in Maine, this guy Brother Love, who had been in for quite awhile when I met him, and he was very instrumental in telling me, basically, “Don’t serve the time, let the time serve you,” and that made a lot of sense to me. When you’re locked up, to use the time to do all of the things that you might not be able to do if you were out there. One thing you got to keep in mind is that, in a way, prison enables you to do a lot of stuff that you couldn’t do if you were out on the street, because you don’t have to pay rent, you don’t have to worry about getting a job, you have a lot of time. You don’t have the access to sort of what you want, but if you really work at it, you can get in the library, get the books, and get the time—and ultimately, for me, I became very disciplined about writing. I got up very early in the morning, because that’s when it was quiet, and still to this day I get up early in the morning and write every day, and that was a habit that I formed when I was locked up.
CS: In one of your trials, you were convicted and sentenced by former Manhattan Borough President Constance Baker Motley, who was chief judge of the Southern District at the time, and yet Motley inadvertently helped you get your sentence vacated. Please explain.
RS: I kept telling myself that there was no way I was going to do 25 years. I was going to beat that sentence down one way or another, so I really became tremendously involved in researching the law around my case and criminal drug laws in general. And once I realized that the law is really nothing but language and it’s how adept you are at reading and writing and arguing and using language to express yourself—dialectic—that became fascinating to me. That I could sit in my cell and write up a brief and take it, type it up, and send it to the court, and the court would have to pay attention to that. In the case here in the Southern District of New York I actually represented myself. I stood up in front of a federal judge and argued my own case, which was a ball. I had a great time. Unfortunately I got convicted, but I ultimately won that case, because I was able to get the sentence vacated. The judge who sentenced me, dear lady, was Judge Constance Baker Motley, who was the first African-American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, an NAACP lawyer who was very close to Thurgood Marshall. She had quite an amazing history. She was the chief judge when I was tried in her court, and I had this defense which was basically, “Look, I’ve already been sentenced to 15 years up in Maine for smuggling pot, and this case, the New York case, is just an attempt by the government to make me cooperate, give them information on people that they’re looking to arrest. Some of them were people who weren’t even involved, like Norman Mailer, who was a friend of mine. They had this bee in their bonnet. They wanted to arrest Norman Mailer. He wasn’t involved. Because we owned property together, and because we had been associated for so long, they assumed that Mailer was somehow involved as a conspirator…. My defense was this case was vindictive prosecution, that the government was trying to coerce me to cooperate, and the judge said, “Okay, I’m going to let you go ahead with that defense,” and she approved my list of witnesses and whatnot, but then halfway through the trial she decided she didn’t like that defense anymore, and she stopped the trial, sent the jury out, and said, “I’m not going to allow you to continue that defense. I think it’s a red herring. I think you’re just trying to confuse the jury.” And I objected, but anyway, ultimately I was convicted, but when she sentenced me I gave her this spiel about drugs…. And she said, “You know what? I agree with you, and I think that marijuana is not as dangerous a drug, but you refused to cooperate with the government.” So she based her sentence on my refusal to cooperate with the government, which turns out to be illegal. You can give a person less time for cooperating, but you can’t give a person more time for refusing to cooperate. The sentence becomes coercive, rather than putative. It took me awhile to find the case law in the Second Circuit that says that, but once I found that I knew I was on my way back to court… It was a eureka moment.
CS: You don’t seem to have any ill will toward Judge Motley.
RS: No, no. God bless her for saying that. If she had said that because of the amount of pot that you imported and your refusal to cooperate, I wouldn’t have had my argument, but she based it solely on my refusal to cooperate. She did me a big favor.
CS: The government tried to offer you a plea bargain to drop a dime on Norman Mailer?
RS: It was Mailer and a bunch of other people. Hunter Thompson, who was a dear friend of mine. I was involved with Rolling Stone in those days and I knew Hunter really well. My lawyer at the time was a guy named Dick Goodwin, who was a Kennedy speechwriter, and they wanted Goodwin. They wanted anybody that I could give them.
CS: But none of those people were involved with your drug operation?
RS: No. Look, Hunter Thompson, did we smoke pot together? Yes. Did we do LSD together? Yes. Hunter was a drug user, but he was never a drug dealer…. But it would have been a feather in some prosecutor’s cap to have arrested Hunter Thompson, and they would have made a big deal about it because this is the guy who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and then Mailer had written as “General Marijuana” [one of the Mailer’s aliases at The Village Voice] years before.
CS: Do you think Norman Mailer would have made a good mayor of New York?
RS: I thought he had a really interesting idea, the 51st State, the idea of the city-state. I think it was probably a blessing that he wasn’t elected, though, because he probably would have stopped writing. He might have been a really good mayor. Look, the guy was brilliant, an amazing man. You never know what would have happened, but I think that literature would have suffered.
CS: Do you think you’re a better man for having gone to prison?
RS: Yeah. I was a lunatic before I went to prison, in many ways. The thing about doing what I did was that it’s a tremendous enhancer of hubris…. Look, I used to be able to open up the closet and take out a suitcase full of money and do whatever I wanted. That’s a crazy way to live, and it goes to your head. It definitely goes to your head.
CS: And when you got out you married a cop?
RS: I married a former undercover narcotics cop, yeah. [The couple divorced after 15 years; Stratton has since remarried.]
CS: So what is the psychology behind that?
RS: You know, some of my best friends are cops. Tonight I’m going to spend the night with Sonny Grosso…the French Connection cop…. Nobody understands a cop as well as a criminal, and nobody understands a criminal as well as a cop…. The DEA agent who arrested me in the very beginning became a good friend of mine. I don’t have a problem with them, unless they’re corrupt—unless they’re setting you up, or venal. Then that’s different.
CS: What are your thoughts on political corruption?
RS: Mailer used to say, “Is it good for the Jews, or is it bad for the Jews?” meaning, “Is it good for the culture, or is it bad for the culture?” If it’s bad for the culture—and corruption is always bad for the culture—lock ’em up. I think that one of the biggest criminals of the last 20 years is Bernie Madoff. Look at the victims of that guy’s crimes. I remember when I was locked up, Muhammad Ali came and spoke to the prison population one day, it was one of the highlights of my being in prison, and he got up and he was talking about, you know, “Listen, there are guys out there with briefcases stealing more money that you guys are stealing with your guns. Don’t let yourself be defined by your crimes. Go out there and change your lives.” There are politically corrupt people who have done things in the public arena who are heinous, and they affect many more people than someone who is dealing a little pot.
CS: You have been approached in the past about running for office. Would you ever take the plunge and try to become a politician?
RS: Oh, yeah. I’m planning on running for governor.
CS: Do you think an ex-con can make a good elected official?
RS: I think an ex-con can make a great elected official. They would certainly have a tremendous amount of understanding about what happens on both sides of the fences and the stone walls that keeps so much of our population locked up. They could do a real good job, actually.
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