"A lot of people tell me I give them hope," says Will Foster, "because I did have 93 years in prison, and now I'm free." Arrested in 1995 for growing marijuana in the basement of his Tulsa home, Foster received a sentence so onerous that it attracted international attention. (See "Pot of Trouble," May 1997.) Now he spends much of his time trying to help people in similar situations.
Foster was sentenced to 93 years even though there was no evidence he sold marijuana, which he used to treat the symptoms of his rheumatoid arthritis. In August 1998 a state appeals court said the sentence "shocks our conscience" and reduced it to 20 years, making Foster eligible for parole. Days later, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously to release him, but Republican Gov. Frank Keating refused to sign the order. He turned down a second recommendation the following year before finally agreeing to release Foster in April 2001.
Foster, who served four and a half years, says Oklahoma's budget crunch and overcrowded prisons help explain Keating's decision. The governor "signed more paroles in one month than he did his first six years in office, because [the legislature] just would not give him any more money," he says. "My parole happened to be on his desk when they did a mass release of almost 2,300 people."
Foster, who now lives in California, also credits all the people who helped publicize his case, setting up Web sites, publishing articles, and writing letters to the governor and the parole board on his behalf. Through the Adopt a Green Prisoner Project (www.adoptagreenprisoner.org), which seeks volunteers to help nonviolent marijuana offenders gain their freedom, he tries to bring the same sort of attention to other drug war victims. Foster started the site last August with James Dawson, a Florida man who was one of his earliest supporters and who, like Foster, served time for growing marijuana he used as a medicine.
One of the first prisoners Foster and Dawson assisted was James Geddes, who received two 45-year sentences for growing five plants in Oklahoma ("Where else?" says Foster). Geddes, who has served nine years so far, has already won parole on one of his sentences and faces a decision on the other this spring.
For those who doubt that letters, petitions, and rallies make a difference, Foster says he's confident that officials take notice. "Here are people writing letters from Holland, from England, from France, from Thailand," he says, all with the same basic message: "This person had marijuana, and you're putting him in prison for 90 years? What's up with that?"