Craig Cesal resides proof of how ludicrous the nation’s battle on medication turned at its low level.

Earlier than changing into entangled in America’s battle on medication, his solely prior conviction was a $150 advantageous for strolling right into a Bennigan’s with a beer.

Craig Cesal, a trucking restore firm proprietor, was serving a life sentence for a marijuana trafficking conviction within the early 2000s. (Photograph courtesy Final Prisoner Challenge)

Cesal, who’s from the Chicago space, was within the prime of his life, working a truck-repair enterprise, when he was arrested by federal brokers in 2002. One in every of Cesal’s purchasers was a long-haul trucking firm whose drivers, it turned out, have been transferring shipments of marijuana across the American South. U.S. border brokers at a checkpoint in Texas found 1,500 kilos of marijuana wedged right into a hidden compartment in a kind of vans. DEA brokers trailed the car to Georgia, the place the hashish was delivered.

Cesal was the unfortunate man who was choosing that truck as much as restore it.

As he later put it: “I by no means purchased, offered, used, aided and abetted, nor participated in any marijuana exercise; I solely offered restore assist for truck drivers who did so.”

From the day of his arrest Cesal has lived a dystopian nightmare. He was given a life sentence in federal jail. He served practically 19 years earlier than launched into house confinement final June, over issues about his well being throughout the COVID pandemic.

Cesal was practically launched by President Obama in 2016 earlier than enduring a Kafkaesque twist of the bureaucratic knife. His sentence commutation by no means got here by means of.

Lastly, at age 61, he was notified late at night time on Jan. 19 that President Trump had commuted the remainder of his sentence.

This dialog with Leafly happened throughout his first partial day of freedom. It has been edited for readability and brevity.

‘Curler coaster’ week

 Leafly: What sort of feelings have been working by means of you these previous 24 hours?

Craig Cesal: Consider it or not, the true emotional curler coaster began on Monday. I acquired a name from Sarah [Gersten], from the Final Prisoner Challenge, asking, “What’s the greatest cellphone quantity for the White Home to name you?” Think about, I used to be fairly excited that perhaps all these efforts have been paying off. In order you possibly can think about, my cellphone wasn’t greater than arm’s size away from me. [Laughs]

However. I went by means of Monday, I went by means of Tuesday and all the way in which until, 11 o’clock final night time, I’m pondering, you understand, What occurred? Possibly the White Home modified their thoughts and so they’re not going to do commutations. As a result of there it was, getting late, and there had been no announcement, and no announcement of when there can be an announcement. The whole lot was simply silent.

A cellphone name from Ivanka

Leafly: These previous couple of hours should have felt like an eternity.

CC: They did. I imply, I had lots of people contacting me, however aside from that distraction, I actually was pacing. As a result of like I say, particularly when it began attending to 9, 10, 11 o’clock, I’m pondering, you understand, you understand, one thing that occurred, I assume the clemencies simply might not come by means of.

So I used to be actually getting apprehensive when, 11 o’clock [Tuesday] night time, I acquired a name from a Ivanka Trump. She launched herself and her very phrases, that I’m certain I’ll always remember, have been, “The president has commuted your sentence.”

Leafly: You heard from Ivanka herself?

CC: Sure, she mentioned it was her, and I’ve each purpose to imagine it was her. And he or she was very good, with a little bit small discuss and congratulating me and urging me on to a pleasant life.

Cesal was launched to house confinement final summer season as a result of COVID pandemic. He was lastly pardoned this week.

‘My cellphone has been on fireplace’

Leafly: What occurred subsequent?

CC: I texted out to an entire lot of folks that have been hanging on their fingernails as a lot as I used to be—questioning are these commutations actually going to come back by means of? So I began speaking to all these folks, telling them that Ivanka had known as me.

At midnight my time right here in Chicago, I began receiving info that the White Home had revealed the listing of folks that obtained clemency. And naturally my cellphone has been on fireplace ever since. I graduated highschool in 1977, and I don’t understand how they discovered me, however I used to be getting all types of calls from folks I went to highschool with.

Leafly: This was a very long time coming, proper?

CC: A lot of it has been a curler coaster, in that previously so many issues have been all lining up and it regarded like I’m going to get some reduction. [But it didn’t happen.]

Prisoners “be taught to avoid expectations and never imagine something till we see it.”

Like as an example, my clemency petition in 2016 beneath President Obama. It had made it by means of the steering committee. I had a ton of assist. There have been over 400,000 signatures on the net petition. I imply, the whole lot was coming my approach. However then on the final second I acquired blocked by one thing {that a} prosecutor did. There have been occasions after I had appeals in and the whole lot was lined up the place it couldn’t fail, and but it did.

In order that was the precise emotion I used to be feeling Tuesday night time. When advocates over the previous couple of weeks—who’ve been working so arduous for this, for me—they might ask me, “Why is it that you simply and different prisoners appeared extra relaxed than we advocates are, once we’re not doing the time?”

And I defined to them that prisoners, after some time, you keep away from having expectations. You don’t even anticipate to have a pleasant dinner for Christmas as a result of in any other case you you’re in all probability in for a letdown. So we discovered to avoid expectations and never imagine something till we see it.

A prosecutor with a merciless streak

Leafly: You talked about 2016. What did the prosecutor do again then to sabotage your case?

CC: The clemency petition course of is designed to be the avenue of final resort for a prisoner. So after I made it by means of all these gatekeeper necessities for clemency, a prosecutor in my case went within the courtroom and mentioned that I had agreed to my sentence being lowered from life to 30 years, and acquired the choose to grant it. That was on August 22, 2016. And since the courtroom gave me some reduction, that voided my clemency petition, as a result of it was proof that there was one other avenue of reduction.

So that they dismissed my clemency petition, and on September 7, 2016—not even three weeks later—the prosecutor went again into the courtroom and requested them to place my life sentence again up.

Leafly: That’s terrible.

CC: I’m nonetheless arguing that that’s prosecutorial misconduct, however the courts transfer so slowly, it’s nonetheless ongoing. 

Leafly: How a lot have you ever been following the legalization of hashish?

CC: As a lot as I might from the jail. Since I appeared a ebook known as A Dwelling Dying: Life With out the Risk of Parole, that got here out 2012, I’ve had the backing of some simply improbable hashish advocacy teams. And from all these teams, I’ve gotten an entire lot of updates on what’s happening in hashish.

It’s created, you understand, an emotional downside in me, watching all these states legalize hashish.

One expertise I’d prefer to share with you is, after I acquired launched final June to serve a few of my time on house confinement throughout COVID, I needed to go see a Bureau of Prisons physician in Chicago. I’m strolling down Western Avenue, and I simply stopped proper in entrance of a hashish retailer. I stood there with the GPS on my ankle, understanding that at any time I might return to federal jail to serve out the remainder of my sentence. And I’m watching all these folks stroll within the retailer and stroll out carrying luggage and all that. There was simply an emotion that you simply couldn’t in any other case think about.

Leafly: Surreal.

CC: It was, since you don’t understand how dangerous I wished to succeed in out to those folks or stroll into the shop and ask, “Why? Is hashish actually authorized? Then how do you clarify me?”

Leafly: Have you ever been out of your home for the reason that commutation got here by means of?

CC: No. [Laughs.] The one factor I’m going out for at the moment, truly once we’re finished, I’m going to go to the Bureau of Prisons. They’re ready for me to come back in to chop the GPS machine off my ankle. 

Leafly: And after that?

CC:  I’ve to start out off serving a sentence of 5 years of supervised launch. So I’ve to contact these folks and begin getting all that collectively. However after all I’m going to go to some buddies, and I’m going to go to some shops. I haven’t discovered how clothes kinds have modified since 2002.  [Laughs]

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Dave Howard

Dave Howard is a nationwide journal editor and award-winning creator. His most up-to-date ebook is Chasing Phil: The Adventures of Two Undercover Brokers With the World’s Most Charming Con Man.

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