Saunders, a mother of four, cannabis advocate and one-time employee in the Nevada medical space, served four months in federal prison over a probation violation after choosing cannabis over opioids to treat her traumatic brain and body injuries. That choice has burdened Saunders for over a decade, largely preventing her from working in the industry despite years of experience, success and an otherwise spotless record.
Most Affected: Pain Leads to Cannabis Treatment for Katree Darriel Saunders
Severe injuries have plagued Saunders since her teens. At 16, the then-McDonald’s employee slipped, resulting in a head injury. “That led me on the path to doctors and physical therapy,” she recalled.
Part of her treatment included opioid medication and muscle relaxers. She immediately did not like the effect they had on her. “It doesn’t put you in a very good mental place,” she said of medication that made her feel like she was in a fog. Saunders added that opioids often left her feeling itchy, as if she had an allergic reaction that also irritated her stomach.
A friend introduced her to cannabis as an alternative, which she preferred over the prescribed drugs.
Saunders’ condition worsened at age 19. Now living in Las Vegas, Nevada, she was in an auto accident, re-injuring her brain in the process. Injuries compounded through the years via additional car accidents and lingering issues. Today, Saunders’ medical conditions include ruptured discs in the back and spondylosis, a degenerative disc disease. She also reports having nerve damage and fibromyalgia in addition to experiencing migraines on occasion.
Saunders sought out cannabis to treat her growing list of pains and medical conditions. The first source of cannabis was the illicit market. However, in 2008, Saunders was sexually assaulted when attempting to buy her medication. The experience led her to the legal market and her first medical cannabis card after learning about certification in the phone book.
“I wanted somewhere to get my medicine and not have to be open to situations that were not safe,” said Saunders.
An Advocate Arrested and Jailed
By 2009, Saunders had gone from patient to participant in the state’s budding cannabis market. Serving as assistant manager of Nevada Compassionate Care, she performed various duties including assisting patients, office support and setting up community events like local barbeques.
The efforts of several Nevada medical cannabis operations would be upended in January 2011, when the DEA’s Operation Chronic Problem targeted 15 individuals for their activity at various clinics. Saunders, 30 at the time, was arrested for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and hashish and the distribution of marijuana. Saunders was charged over two sales to the Feds, totaling 3.5 grams of cannabis and 10 grams of hashish.
After previously being told she was safe from prosecution from then-President Barack Obama, she said her arrest “was kind of a blindside because there were so many of us in town that had opened up, and we were helping people.” At the time, Nevada had prohibited the sale of medical cannabis, only permitting patients or caregivers to grow their own.
Saunders was not sentenced to prison right away. Instead, the first-time offender received a $100 fine and probation, which ran from 2011 to 2014. While able to avoid prison, she was dealt another harsh punishment in the process. Saunders had previously been taking Marinol, a federally-approved, manufactured, THC-derived medication. Under her sentence, she could no longer be prescribed her drug of choice.
During her pretrial release, Saunders was involved in another auto accident, resulting in significant neck, brain and back trauma. Instead of being able to use Marinol, she was prescribed opiates.
Saunders wasn’t having it. She said that she already saw several friends in Tennessee and Nevada die from opioid addiction. The mother of four kids, including two young sons, did not want to succumb to a similar fate. In 2014, defying the order, she used Marinol, occasionally smoking cannabis as well. In time, she knew she’d fail a test and get sent to prison for her decision. By the time she received her four-month sentence in 2014, Saunders had begun to wean herself off the drug in preparation. The federal sentence would end her probation.
Prison presented its own series of ordeals: While locked up, her husband served her with divorce papers as he took a new job several states away. Making matters worse, she barely saw her children.
All the while, the nonviolent offender found herself in a cell block with murderers, making her constantly feel on guard. She would connect with a prayer circle, a group she said prayed for her while inside. Using spirituality as her guide, Saunders remained at relative peace while serving four months in federal prison. She was released on July 14, 2014.
A Federal Record Diminishes Cannabis Industry Hopes
Acclimating to post-prison life is often a trying ordeal. For Saunders, the experience included a year-long period where her children stayed with their fathers several states away as she looked for employment. While she’s been able to re-establish the relationships with her kids, finding work has not been as successful due to her record.
By 2016, she was ready to get back in the industry and help open two dispensaries in the booming medical market. Still, her record continued to cause issues obtaining her state-approved license to work in the medical space. In time, the concern lessened, as Saunders found some work in the space and continued to advocate for the marketplace and criminal record reform.
Three years after her release, Saunders was feeling good about her place in the industry. She was working for an edibles brand. However, a conflict with a coworker led to a background check, which found that her license had expired. When she attempted to renew, she discovered that the state’s adult use laws prevented former felons from working in the market.
Saunders noted that record reform is often a subject discussed during legalization. However, her exclusion from the program highlights a lack of reform concerning federal offenders. “There’s still a grey area when it comes to people with cannabis convictions, and they don’t really discuss federal convictions when they’re talking about expungement,” she said.
Despite the setbacks, she continues to push for record reform and revisions to state regulations to allow people like her to obtain permits. She credits groups like The Last Prisoner Project for providing continued support. Saunders also continues to hone her business knowledge while waiting. This past year, she earned her Bachelor of Business Administration in entrepreneurial and small business operations from Columbia University. She hopes to one day use her education and cannabis experience to operate her own vertically integrated venture.
Optimism remains high, but Saunders’ record continues to haunt her present prospects. She was recently on unemployment in-between stints with Uber, DoorDash and Postmates. She also worked for Lyft, but was dismissed after some time when her record came up.
However, her prospects may soon improve after receiving an internship with retired NFL star Marshawn Lynch’s Dodi cannabis brand. She still has to figure out her permit situation, but remains confident she can receive approval from the state. In May 2021, she received the Patient Advocate of the Year Award from Americans for Safe Access.
At the same time, Saunders continues to interview for positions, including her old role as a patient advocate. “People in the industry still want to work with me,” she said.