Protecting the Vicious, Punishing the Virtuous: Marijuana Prohibition and Idaho's Prison-Industrial Complex
Josh Tewalt has a drug problem that led to several arrests. Like many others afflicted with that weakness, Tewalt eventually wound up in prison. Unlike most of them, however, he landed on the right side of the bars in the very lucrative position of Deputy Chief of Corrections for the State of Idaho.
Without the dubious benefit of a college degree or substantial experience in law enforcement apart from his own time in jail, Tewalt receives a base salary of at least $83,000 a year to manage the human inventory of Idaho’s prison-industrial complex.
Under Idaho’s state code, Tewalt’s repeated DUIs constituted an aggregate felony. Many – perhaps most – of the people whose lives he now controls committed offenses less serious than his. More than a few of them were convicted of felonies under Idaho’s pre-medieval laws against marijuana possession. The inmate population over which Tewalt presides may soon include desperate parents of children suffering from conditions for which non-intoxicating cannabis oil (CBD) is the only effective treatment.
On April 16, Idaho Governor Butch Otter vetoed a measure (S1146a) that would not have decriminalized possession and use of CBD, but would have created an “affirmative defense” for those who obtain and use it for treatment of several medical conditions, including cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and various kinds of seizure disorders.
That bill did not recognize that marijuana use is a function of the unqualified right to self-ownership, which is the only morally sound perspective on the matter. It would have placed a modest impediment in the way of cynical people who make a subsidized living by punishing those who exercise that right. This would include parents who would not consume CBD, but administer it to their children.
Natalie Stevens, who testified in favor of the bill before the Idaho Legislature, is among those who may face prosecution if they obtain CBD for medical treatment. Stevens’s 11-year-old daughter Marley suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome, an intractable form of epilepsy. The child first experienced seizures at four months of age, and they have steadily increased in severity.
Speaking on behalf of her family, Stevens explained that the prospect of imprisonment is easier to contemplate than the continuing spectacle of her child’s unrelieved suffering. She told the legislators that she wants to follow the law, but is willing to do anything for her child.
“Seizures are our prison,” Stevens explained. “We’ll gladly risk this. We’re already in prison. We would rather be arrested [for possession of CBD] and have an affirmative defense.” Arrayed against Stevens and many other suffering children and their anguished parents were the crème de la scum of Idaho’s entitled punitive class – police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and Elisha Figueroa, director of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy.
These people, and their comrades, are determined to abduct and prosecute any Idaho resident who obtains and uses CBD. Enactment of S1146a would not have deprived them of that opportunity. Police who find people in possession of CBD would still be able to seize and “forfeit” cash, cars, and other property even before charges are filed, and prosecutors could still seek to extort plea bargains from financially straitened and over-matched defendants.
The only significant difference is that those prosecuted for CBD possession would have a legally recognized affirmative defense, and thus a legitimate prospect of victory in a jury trial. Those who operate Idaho’s carceral apparatus simply couldn’t countenance a slight reduction in the prohibitive advantage they enjoy in seeking to cage someone for making unauthorized use of a benign mood-altering substance. In this case, the prohibited substance is a cannabis derivative has no measurable psychoactive properties. It is banned for ritualistic reasons, not substantive ones: The high priests of prohibition have decreed that we must avoid even the appearance of “evil.”
State-imposed taboos must be sustained through exceptionally vicious applications of state power. The superstition called marijuana prohibition is dying, and in its final convulsions those who act in its name are seeking to wring whatever residual trickle of misery they can out of the unbelievers– including children stricken with untreatable diseases and the parents who would give anything, their lives included, to relieve that suffering.
Adherents of the Prohibition cult earnestly believe that the individual, as the property of the state, can be punished for consuming a substance without the explicit permission of those who act on its behalf.
In his veto message, Otter – in a gesture of regal condescension akin to Xerxes extending his scepter to Esther – included an executive order creating a small, carefully controlled experimental “access program” for a limited number of sick children. Under invasive scrutiny by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, they will be allowed to act as guinea pigs in tests of an FDA-approved product called Epidiolex ®, a form of refined cannabis oil produced by GW Pharmaceuticals.
Legalizing the “limited use of cannabidiol oil … contrary to federal law” would be entirely inappropriate," Otter insisted in his veto message, since this approach would supposedly be rife with “misuse and abuse with criminal intent.” Which is to say, recognizing the innate right of people to cultivate and use marijuana would allow them to escape the clutches of “regulatory capture” – in this case, by pharmaceutical corporations working in alliance with the federal government.
This is how an actual “drug cartel” works.
Where the right to use marijuana is recognized, abuses can occur. The same is true of alcohol, a legal and immeasurably more destructive drug – something Otter can certify on the basis of personal experience.
As Lieutenant Governor 23 years ago, Otter was arrested for a DUI, and served a year of probation as a result. When stopped by a Meridian police officer, Otter initially said that his vehicle swerved because of a knee injury. He later explained to a jury that he failed a field sobriety test because, in his hunger following an eight-mile run, he had soaked chewing tobacco in Jack Daniels – an explanation that actually enhances, rather than diminishes, concerns about potential issues of addiction.
Otter has plenty of company in the Olympian realm in which dwells Idaho’s political elite. This includes Deputy Corrections Director Josh Tewalt, who will be the custodial master of any Idaho residents who seek effective medical treatment with CBD in defiance of what Otter and his ilk insist on calling the “law.”
In 1999, less than two years after graduating from High School, Tewalt was hired as a staffer by Governor Dirk Kempthorne. Two years later he was employed by then-Representative Butch Otter. While on Otter’s staff Tewalt was arrested for DUI.
Although he resigned from Otter’s staff following a second DUI arrest in 2005, he benefitted from the kind of leniency granted only to the powerful and well-connected: The charge was reduced to inattentive driving. This spared Tewalt a mandatory one-year license suspension, compulsory installation of an ignition interlock system, and a possible one-year prison sentence. Most importantly, the amended charge saved him from a felony when he was arrested for his third DUI just a few months later.
Since his record didn’t bear the indelible stain of a felony, Tewalt was able to get a job with the Idaho Cattle Association, eventually rising to the position of executive vice president. This brought him into contact, once again, with Butch Otter, who had been elected governor. Tewalt was appointed by Otter to serve as a legislative analyst in 2008. The following year, Otter officiated at Tewalt’s wedding, where he met Brent Reinke, Director of the Department of Corrections. Reinke hired Otter’s protégé to be his deputy in 2011. This belated wedding gift by one crony to another entailed a $40,000 dollar raise.
Tewalt was brought on board to be a “change agent,” insisted Reinke, someone who can “learn our system and challenge our practices.” Tewalt proved to be an apt pupil, and an indifferent revolutionary; with his help, Idaho’s prison-industrial complex has prospered.
Idaho currently has the second-fastest growing prison population in the Soyuz. Over the next four years, prison construction and maintenance are expected to cost $300 million in funds plundered from the state’s tax victims. On average, the amount of time served by drug offenders – that is to say, political prisoners – is double the national average. Owing to an unusually prehensile parole system, Idaho has an exceptionally high rate of recidivism, and it’s not uncommon for prisoners to serve 200 percent of their “fixed” sentences.
Tewalt’s stewardship includes the Juvenile Corrections Center in Nampa, where more than a dozen child inmates – including some who were mentally handicapped or on psychiatric medication -- were molested or otherwise abused by guards and staffers. A federal audit conducted under the Prison Rape Elimination Act certified that the “problems” in that facility have been rectified. This came as a surprise to some of the personnel cited in the report, who told the Idaho Press-Tribune that the federal investigator never bothered to interview them.
The “system” Tewalt learned under Reike’s tutelage was one in which some inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center – a state prison operated by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – were routinely beaten and abused by prison gangs under the indifferent supervision of the staff. In 2010, several inmates filed lawsuits (which were later consolidated into a class-action case) alleging that the CCA-run facility was known as a “Gladiator School.”
Shortly before Tewalt was hired in 2011, a federal judge imposed a consent decree requiring a number of reforms in the administration of the prison. The CCA responded by falsifying at least 5,000 hours of employee records to certify that it had maintained minimum staffing requirements. When news of this misconduct went public, CCA filed for a protective order seeking to preserve the opacity of its administrative practices. The corporation was found in contempt of court – but was allowed to finish out its contract with the state, which expired last year.
“We have delivered exceptional value to Idaho’s taxpayers through cost savings, and we’ve also provided outstanding rehabilitation programming to the inmates entrusted to our care,” boasted CCA Vice President Brad Regens after the company decided not to bid on a follow-up contract. While that statement is a lie, it must be admitted, in all fairness, that this public-private partnership -- which is, by strict definition, an application of fascism -- offered "exceptional value" to the CCA's shareholders and executive-level employees.
Tim Wengler, the Idaho Correctional Center’s warden, was allowed to retire at age 46 – after firing former chief of security Shane Jeppsen, who says he warned Wengler about the abuses in 2010. Retaliation against whistleblowers continues to be a feature, rather than a glitch, in the prison system Tewalt manages. Diana Canfield, a former mental health clinician at the formerly CCA-run prison, was fired after complaining to her supervisor about the destruction or alteration of inmates’ medical records.
Many, if not most, of the people consigned to live in Josh Tewalt’s domain are imprisoned because of vices, rather than crimes. But it’s difficult to imagine anything more vicious than Butch Otter’s willingness to imprison virtuous parents whose only “offense” is to use cannabis oil to treat their incurably sick children.
Reprinted with author's permission from his website.