Aaron Sandusky has spent nearly seven years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute cannabis. He's one of about 20,000 federal or state inmates behind bars for an activity that is legal in one form or another in 33 U.S. states and Washington, D.C.
A bill is working its way through the Senate that might help people like Sandusky by expunging their records. Some advocates believe that President Donald Trump is close to granting clemency to some of these men and women―including Sandusky.
When Sandusky opened a marijuana dispensary in 2009, medical cannabis had been legal for 13 years in California. But in 2011, the feds carried out a series of federal raids on medical marijuana clinics in California, despite earlier assurances from President Barack Obama and his attorney general that they wouldn't target operators that were legal under state law.
Sandusky had located his operation in the town of Upland, one of a handful of municipalities that was attempting to use the zoning code to keep the industry away. Sandusky alleges that in 2011 the then-mayor, John Pomierski, demanded a $20,000 bribe to allow him to continue operating.
Sandusky ended up cooperating with the FBI, which later arrested and charged Pomierski with bribery and extortion.
After Pomierski was indicted, Upland continued the fight to force Sandusky to close his dispensary. So he sued in state court and won.
But cannabis is still a schedule one narcotic. According to Sandusky, city officials retaliated by sending a formal request to the U.S. attorney to shut down his operations. On November 1, 2011, federal agents raided Sandusky's businesses.
The federal government charged him with six counts of drug trafficking. Sandusky's employees all took plea deals. His business partner testified against him in return for a lighter sentence.
Sandusky declined a plea deal offer that would have turned him into an informant.
"I said, 'I'm not going to go set people up so these guys can take them down,'" says Sandusky. "These people are following state law."
Sandusky's attorney was planning to argue entrapment on the grounds that the Obama administration had publicly stated that it wouldn't prosecute marijuana operators. The judge prohibited that line of defense, and Sandusky was convicted and sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. During sentencing, Judge Percy Anderson accused him of having lost his "way about what's right and what's wrong."
"Aaron, maybe more than anyone, should receive clemency because his case is so disturbing," says Amy Povah.
Povah did nine years in prison on a drug charge before receiving clemency from Bill Clinton in 2000. Now she runs the the nonprofit CAN-DO Foundation, which seeks clemency for all nonviolent drug offenders. Sandusky is one of 22 "pot prisoners" who CAN-DO is currently working to free.
"Corporations are making millions [from cannabis], and and we're even getting into the billions," says Povah. "I think [it's] almost a human rights violation to continue to punish people for marijuana offenses."
Povah says she's visited the Trump White House several times and met with Jared Kushner, who heads up the president's criminal justice reform team. She believes Kushner is open to reforming the clemency process and freeing more marijuana offenders.
"I am predicting that the cannabis people who are honest about this will see that [Trump is] the one that can get this done," says Dana Rohrabacher, a former U.S. congressman, a marijuana legalization advocate, and a Trump supporter.
He co-authored the 2014 Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from expending resources to raid and prosecute anyone operating a marijuana-related business under state law. Rohrabacher thinks that under his law, Sandusky should be released immediately, though the courts don't see it that way.
"They should be let out of jail and they should be given their freedom, clemency, and maybe even an apology," says Rohrabacher.
Sandusky is set for early release from prison this November, when he'll be transferred to a halfway house in California and then out on probation in early 2020.
Even though Sandusky will be out soon, he knows he'll be facing consequences long after his release and continues to seek a court appeal overturning his sentence or a full pardon and expungement for operating a business within the bounds of California law.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by John Osterhoudt and Weissmueller. Additional camera by Alex Manning and Austin Bragg. Graphics by Josh Swain.
"Florence Federal Prison" photo credit: Chris Schneider/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Newscom
"Dana Rohrabacher" photo credit: Paul Zinken/picture-alliance/Newscom
"Obama 2008" photo credit: Anthony Nowack/Photoshot/Newscom
"Deparment of Justice" photo credit: Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes/Dreamstime
"J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building" photo credit: Paul Brady/Dreamstime