The Florence Federal Correctional Complex, a federal penitentiary in Colorado, is a sprawling compound of prison facilities that includes the highest-security federal prison in the country. Dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” it is home to Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called Unabomber; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers; and Zacarias Moussaoui, an al Qaeda operative who played a role in the 9/11 attacks.
The complex also houses Aaron Sandusky, a Southern California man currently serving a 10-year federal drug sentence for running a state-legal medical marijuana business.
Sandusky, 48, is held in a lower-security camp facility of the prison. He works inside the supermax part of the facility several days a week. It’s the third federal prison he’s been caged in over the course of the six years he’s spent behind bars so far. He’s about 1,000 miles from his home, friends and family in California.
Like numerous other detainees across the nation, he is serving a lengthy sentence for something that isn’t illegal in his own state. Sandusky was sentenced in 2013 for running three dispensaries in Southern California, even though medical marijuana was legal in California, on federal charges of conspiracy and possession with the intent to distribute marijuana. He has been fighting for freedom since his conviction, and he’s recently found new hope for release in a surprising figure ― President Donald Trump.
Trump has developed a deep interest in his clemency powers. Under previous presidents, generally, the office of the pardon attorney at the Department of Justice made recommendations for clemency relief to the president for prisoners who met an elaborate set of guidelines. But Trump hasn’t been rigidly sticking to those guidelines and instead has been bypassing the office and acting more impulsively with the relief he’s granted so far. The pardons have mostly involved cases that drew attention in conservative media or have come to his attention through celebrity intervention.
Trump has granted clemency to nine people since he’s taken office ― seven pardons and four commutations (with some overlap). Most recently, earlier this month, he pardoned and commuted the sentences of Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, a father-son team convicted in 2012 on two counts of arson on federal land whose cause had been championed by right-wing militias and sparked an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In June, he commuted the life sentence of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense whose three clemency petitions were rejected by the Obama administration.
Trump appears to be interested in considering more cases. In June, the administration asked advocacy groups across the country for a list of prospective candidates for clemency. The CAN-DO Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for clemency for prisoners convicted of drug offenses, put forward 60 names, including Sandusky’s. Twenty-two people on that list are currently serving time for marijuana offenses.
“There’s a rumbling going through the prison walls right now of Donald Trump possibly sparking a clemency wave,” Sandusky told HuffPost from a Florence prison phone last week.
“For the first time since my own clemency in 2000, we have a president who has signaled a willingness to circumvent the conventional clemency process, which has been broken for decades,” said CAN-DO founder Amy Povah, whom former President Bill Clinton granted clemency to in 2000 after she had served more than nine years of an original 24-year drug sentence. Ever since, she’s worked to raise awareness about cases like hers.
Trump’s stance on legal marijuana could be helpful to pot prisoners like Sandusky. Trump, who said repeatedly during his campaign he would respect states’ rights on the issue, has recently said he supports relaxing federal marijuana laws.
Sandusky was convicted as part of an aggressive federal crackdown on medical marijuana in the Obama years. Sandusky had not violated any of California’s medical marijuana laws. But the federal government has long considered marijuana an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act ― one with no ”currently accepted medical use.”
In federal court, where Sandusky’s case was tried, only federal laws are applied. As such, federal courts don’t allow any evidence that marijuana may have been used for medical purposes, even when medical marijuana is legal under a state’s law, as it is in California. Sandusky’s medical marijuana defense, therefore, was silenced by the court.
His attempts to appeal his conviction failed, and he first applied for clemency in 2016 under the Obama administration. But Obama didn’t approve the request for relief. Meanwhile, Sandusky languished in prison.
“Everything in here is geared to break you. It’s geared to bury you alive,” Sandusky said about life in prison.
Now, Sandusky hopes Trump might do what Obama wouldn’t.
“I wake up every day in here and ask myself, ‘How did this happen?’ There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say, ‘Why am I here again?’” Sandusky said. “I’m surrounded by marijuana farms and I’m doing time for cultivation and distribution.”
Colorado, where the Florence correctional complex is located, is one of nine states that has now legalized recreational marijuana. A total of 30 states, and Washington, D.C., have legalized the drug for medical purposes.