On November 17, 2020, two weeks after New Jersey citizens voted to legalize adult-use cannabis, Humberto “Berto” Ramirez was sentenced to a mandatory two years in state prison, with a possible maximum of seven years. On February 19, 2019, the then-43-year-old Ramirez, who often goes by “Bert,” was arrested on second-degree drug charges in Middle Township, New Jersey. Police found six pounds of cannabis in his Dodge Charger’s trunk.
For Ramirez, the arrest marked his third cannabis sentence over his lifetime, meaning he’d be obligated to serve a longer sentence despite an otherwise spotless record for roughly 25 years. The ruling has put a strain on all involved, with Ramirez’s health a concern since entering prison. All the while, he and his wife, Brooke Popplewell, fight to ensure their daughter doesn’t experience too drastic of a change in her everyday life. Despite their best efforts, his absence is unavoidable.
Popplewell told High Times that Ramirez is “an exceptional spouse” who takes great responsibility to his family, career, or community.
“I owed my nursing career to him,” she said, noting that Ramirez was the sole father driving their daughter, Lilyanna, and the other girls to dance practice and recitals until she earned her degree in 2014.
Overall, they say they lived a quiet life and enjoyed it. The most excitement typically came during the annual family trip to Florida. Ramirez worked two jobs, construction and driving trucks for a local furniture company. Popplewell said her husband never called off of work or missed any of their daughter’s recitals. Over time, the family bought a home in Del Haven, just 10 minutes from where the arrest would occur.
At the same time, she reported that he’s gone into six-figures worth of student loan debts, ensuring that his two oldest daughters from a previous relationship don’t start life with immense financial burdens.
Cannabis provided Ramirez therapeutic relief after long days of work. Popplewell said she didn’t participate but supported her husband consuming in his “man cave” or outside in the shed. He’d buy in larger quantities, picking up several pounds to satisfy himself while giving some to family and friends in need. He also sold undisclosed amounts to offset the costs but never netted revenue. Often, especially regarding Brooke’s grandparents, who used cannabis to treat their chemotherapy effects, Bert would give them pot for free.
“I’m not gonna charge them,” said Ramirez, adding that they needed the medication.
Six Pounds of Pot
The arrangement had been going well for years until that day in February 2019. A first-time charge likely would have seen Ramirez ending up with a lighter sentence. He may even have gotten pre-trial intervention, a program for first-time offenders in New Jersey that can lead to charges being dismissed if the accused completes the stated conditions.
That wasn’t the case for Bert, who had two prior nonviolent cannabis convictions from 18 and 20 years old. Despite nearly 25 years of staying out of trouble, his past indiscretions would result in a minimum of two years in jail with the possibility of maximum confinement until December 3, 2025.
The sentencing came just days after New Jersey legalized adult-use cannabis. Ramirez felt like the sentence was a “slap in the face” in light of the developments in the state.
“Six pounds of marijuana,” Ramirez said, puzzled to be in prison without committing a violent act or having a weapon.
Before the arrest, Ramirez didn’t think he’d ever get busted for pot again. “It was just weed. I wasn’t selling pounds and pounds,” he said. When he was arrested, the family thought he’d have to pay some fines and attend drug court, at most.
Popplewell believes the town’s low drug arrest activity caused Bert’s case to pique prosecutors’ interest seeking to boost their public image.
“When they’re able to crucify somebody, they absolutely do so,” she said.
A 2020 annual report from the Middle Township Police Department reported that its Street Crimes Unit Officers made eight arrests in 2020, totaling $925 seized from the sale of various substances, including cannabis and synthetic pot. The report notes that officers were not in full force for the entire year due to the pandemic.
The Vicious Cycle of Prison Pain
In a letter seeking his early release, Popplewell said the family’s lives were shattered the day Ramirez was sentenced. However, the pain started well before that day. Awaiting sentencing during the pandemic led the family to be in a sort of limbo, unsure of when he’d have to face the courts. Often, they’d receive just 24 hours’ notice of when they had to appear.
For two years, Popplewell said the family “lived on eggshells.” They recalled their daughter asking if tomorrow would be the last day her dad would be home.
“You can’t plan anything because you don’t know if your life is going to change,” said Popplewell, barely holding back tears.
When he was sentenced, Ramirez, Popplewell, and their attorney were the only three in the Superior Court building. Due to the pandemic, all other parties attended via teleconference.
The pain would intensify as Ramirez’s health diminished while in prison. During quarantine, he was found unconscious, resulting in regular headaches and dizzy spells. The family struggled on the outside as well. Popplewell’s grandparents had to go back to prescribed opioid-based medications for their cancer treatments. Meanwhile, Popplewell would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She now takes daily medication, but in a cruel twist of fate, was recommended medical cannabis.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.
The pandemic has created immense mental pain for Ramirez as well. He’s spent prolonged periods in isolation with little to his disposal. The family reports that protocols have left inmates isolated for 24 hours a day with only a bible to read at times.
Hope for Humberto
Ramirez continues to contend with COVID protocols and isolation. At the same time, his family and advocates persist with clemency appeals to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.
Prominent cannabis prisoner advocates have stepped up as well. Support comes from groups like 40 Tons, a cannabis lifestyle line that includes a shirt for Ramirez. Others include the Last Prisoner Project (LPP). The advocacy group included Ramirez in their recent plea to the Governor to free New Jersey’s cannabis prisoners.
Meanwhile, the family works with lawyers and local prosecutors to do away with his mandatory minimum sentence. They hope the public will join them in their fight for Ramirez’s early release by signing his Change.org petition and through other endeavors, like writing to Governor Murphy.
All the while, the family waits for fall 2022, when Ramirez will be up for parole in November. After the past few years, he isn’t confident.
“I think they’re going to keep coming up with something,” he said, followed by a sigh.