Beth Curtis used to fill her days playing tennis with friends and attending community board meetings in her rural home of Zanesville, Ohio, a small coal country city on the outskirts of Appalachia. But in the past decade, the social calendar of the 76-year-old widow and mother of three has all but disappeared. Instead, she spends her time corresponding with incarcerated people, sending mailers to cannabis companies, talking to the media, and updating her website, LifeForPot.com—all exercises dedicated to advocating for nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole on marijuana convictions. Called the “Mother Teresa for Pot Prisoners,” Curtis is lauded as a crucial voice in criminal justice circles for her work calling attention to those who remain incarcerated on marijuana charges as the plant becomes legal across the country.
Curtis, who worked briefly as a social worker in the 1960s, spent the majority of her life raising her three sons and volunteering on various boards. That changed when her brother, John Knock, was given two life sentences plus 20 years without the possibility of parole for his involvement with a marijuana distribution ring. During the 1970s and early ‘80s, Knock, who had moved to San Francisco, spent most of his time out of the country as part of a group that imported marijuana into Europe, Canada, and the northwest.
He left the group in the late ‘80s to spend time with his family and son, moving to Hawaii. Knock was indicted in 1994, picked up in Paris in 1996, and extradited to the United States in 1999, where he stood trial at a federal district court in Florida. He was convicted of conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and money laundering. Nine years later, when Knock’s legal team had exhausted all of his appeals, his loved ones were left in disbelief of the future that awaited him.
“Our family was shocked because we really didn’t understand the justice system and thought it couldn’t be right,” said Curtis.
“The people who are serving life sentences, egregiously long sentences, are really stunned people are making millions of dollars off the product they’re in federal prison for life for,” Curtis said.
Curtis, who was 66 at the time, had honed her skills on the internet investing in small pension plans in the early ‘90s. She started searching government websites looking for people who had similar sentences for marijuana. She looked for cases that appeared to involve people who were incarcerated solely for marijuana offenses and wrote letters to them in prison in hopes they’d be willing to share more.
“It wasn’t that easy, at that time there weren’t a lot of people who were advocating for them,” Curtis said. “When a stranger writes to you in federal prison I think it’s very logical they were afraid it would be someone who would be an outside confidential informant trying to get information about them that would do harm.”
Once she earned their trust, Curtis drew on the conversations to write profiles for her entirely self-funded website in a bid to raise awareness for people like her brother who were condemned to spend the rest of their lives behind bars for marijuana.
“It’s pretty satisfying to be able to give them some kind of the story on the outside,” she said. “Every story is a tragedy.”
Eventually, word spread among prisoners, who started contacting Curtis with names of other inmates for her to profile. Curtis said she believes in clemency for all nonviolent drug offenders but she wanted her website to specifically focus on people who just had marijuana convictions. To maintain these standards, she committed to an arduous vetting process that involved trudging through court documents to double check backgrounds and weed out anyone who had unrelated convictions.
Curtis’ reputation has grown over the years and with that, she’s become a regular source for media navigating the sometimes intricate world of marijuana lifers and commutations. She regularly offers her expertise for articles, helps reporters fact check confusing court documents, and connects them with incarcerated people for interviews.
Curtis doesn’t know how many nonviolent drug offenders are now serving life sentences for marijuana but says there aren’t as many as people would expect. The website currently lists 29 people, separated into age categories of “inmates over 62” and “inmates under 62.”
One man in the latter category, Andy Cox, was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and sentenced to life without parole in 2009 for growing plants in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest using a landscaping business as a cover. The 54-year-old former firefighter and father of three is incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky, a high-security facility known for numerous violent incidents. In an email to High Times, he praised Curtis as an “angel for myself and other pot lifers.”
“She has helped me to keep strong and never lose hope,” he wrote. “Her personality and strong will keep a smile and love in my heart. She’s my angel.”
Amy Povah, a formerly incarcerated person and founder of the CAN-DO Foundation, an organization that advocates for clemency for all nonviolent drug offenders, christened Curtis as the “Mother Teresa for Pot Prisoners,” alluding to the Roman Catholic Saint known for her charitable work. CAN-DO works closely with Life For Pot and has taken over some advocacy work for pot lifers in recent years. Povah credited Curtis’ work vetting cases as a boon to many other advocates as “many people, myself included, have benefited from her body of work.”
At least five pot lifers who Curtis has advocated for have received commutations, but Cox and Knock were among the more than 3,000 cases denied commutations or pardons by former president Barack Obama before he left office in January 2017. Curtis had been helping families of pot lifers prepare complicated clemency petitions to be processed through Obama’s Clemency Project 2014, or CP14, which then Attorney General Eric Holder said could shorten the sentences of more than 10,000 incarcerated people behind bars for nonviolent offenses.
“It was pretty devastating. I honestly could not believe it,” Curtis said. “It was all very hard because everybody who didn’t receive mercy contacted me and they needed reassurance there’s still hope and frankly there still is.”
Curtis recalled being interviewed by a reporter the day after her brother and other pot lifers learned they wouldn’t be getting out. After being asked if she was discouraged that Obama was gone and Trump had taken his place, she told him that surprisingly, she was not, she recounted to High Times.
“My brother has been in prison through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations and so I don’t see hope backwards, hope has to be forward.”
Her optimism may not be displaced as the president has reportedly become obsessed with his power to grant mercy, revealing on June 8 that he is reviewing a list of 3,000 people “that have been treated unfairly or where their sentence is far too long.”
Curtis pointed out that clemency is now especially relevant as marijuana is increasingly decriminalized and legalized while a bill to end the federal ban is gaining momentum.
But the policy shifts are bittersweet for those still behind bars for their own roles in harvesting and distributing the plant. In an effort to build support from people benefiting from the new regulations, Curtis has amassed a database of cannabis business enterprises, conglomerates, and venture capitalists to whom she sends mailings urging them to advocate for those serving life sentences for cannabis. There aren’t many in the industry doing so, Curtis said—a surprising revelation, given that the plant is now part of a $9 billion industry projected to employ 292,000 people by 2021.
Curtis talks to her brother a few times a week but has passed on work like communicating regularly with pot prisoners to other advocacy groups such as CAN-Do and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), whose president, Kevin Ring, heralded her as an inspiration.
“When advocates say, ‘When a person goes to prison, the whole family serves the time,’ you just have to look at Beth’s life. I don’t think she’s breathed a free breath since her brother went to prison,” he said.
She still spends every day on for LifeForPot, however, working from home on her 13-acre piece of land just outside of Zanesville’s city center. Her husband passed away three years ago and although they had different interests, she called him her “biggest cheerleader.” Curtis admitted she’s neglected many of her friends over the past decade but said they’re all tolerant of her mission. Spending the last 10 years fighting for pot prisoners hasn’t taken a toll on her physically, however, as youthful-looking Curtis joked that she wants more wrinkles to match her age. What she does have, she said, are a pair of personality traits she credits as the tools that drive her work.
“Obviously I’m a very obsessive-compulsive person and I’m pathologically optimistic.”