November 13, 2013 marks the one-year anniversary since Ken Unger, my friend and hero, won his two-year, two-month legal battle against the draconian criminal justice system that enforces the failed and futile laws of cannabis prohibition.
For those of you not familiar, Ken was a fully disabled Navy Veteran injured during the invasion of Grenada on October 25, 1983. As he and his fellow shipmates moved an empty davit, the hook for the 50-ton crane slipped loose and struck his head, throwing him on his back. A Navy seal quickly picked Ken up and rushed him to the medical bay where they administered two aspirin and sent him on 24 hours sick leave with no further treatment for his injuries. He completed his tour of duty but continued to suffer from pain as his spine degraded to the point where in 1989 he was already on opioids and required spinal surgery; however, the pain persisted and so did the prescriptions for opioid pain relievers. By 1994, the degradation of his spine lead the VA to determining he was 40 percent disabled and entered him into career training. He subsequently had a major heart attack during a career training class; the VA then decided he was 100 percent disabled.
As the years went by the opioids–16mg of Morphine and 1650mg of Hydrocodone daily–and Motrin took their toll on Ken’s health. Resulting in two more heart attacks, six stents in the arteries supplying and removing blood from his heart, and an 8-inch piece of plastic serving as peripheral artery bypass in his lower abdomen that stretched into his right leg from the opioids and kidney damage from the Motrin.
Eventually Ken met Beverly, a wonderful and caring woman, whom he married. By 2000, their son Chris, a loving and doting child, was born. Despite Ken’s best efforts, opioids prevented him from being a functional and positive influence in his wife and son’s lives. At some point thereafter, Ken made the decision to grow a small amount of cannabis to replace the pain (patient) killers, Motrin, Morphine and Hydrocodone.
As his skills grew, Ken was able to treat his chronic pain by grow a couple of plants per crop, which supplied him with enough cannabis to last between harvests.
Utilizing cannabis not only allowed Ken to treat his pain with few side effects, it also allowed him to return to living a normal life. He became stronger, healthier, and, most importantly, functional, able to rejoin his wife and child’s lives. In fact, Ken looked forward to growing old with Beverly and they looked forward to watching their son grow up and start a life of his own.
Enter the antagonist.
September 10, 2012 at approximately 4 PM, Ken was at home awaiting his wife’s arrival from work and his then 10-year-old son’s arrival from school when St Charles County Sheriff’s Drug Task Force in conjunction with the O’Fallon Police Department served a no-knock warrant to search his home for evidence of cannabis cultivation.
They found Ken’s small grow room, confiscated his two plants and growing materials, arrested him, and then booked him on a Class A Felony charge of growing cannabis into St Charles County’s jail where he was housed for about 12 days until Bev could raise the money for his bond.
While detained the jail dispensed Ken his medication, unfortunately they were overdosing him on several of these. This was due to the VA cost saving measures that provides pills to patients that are twice the strength of the prescribed dosage, which need cut in half and jail’s refusal to cut the pills in half.
After his release from jail, Ken and Bev hired a local attorney who for 5,000 dollars would help Ken accept the plea agreement with the prosecution for 5 years of probation with regular drug screening for the charge of cultivation, which would prevent him from using cannabis.
Unwilling and unable to go back on Morphine and Hydrocodone Ken reused to take the initial plea agreement and began to reach out to the cannabis activist community and found a strong ally and good friend in Arlene Williams, a.k.a. Ganja Granny. She began networking and spreading Ken’s story.
By April 2011, Ganja Granny’s efforts led to Joseph Welch–a St Louis based attorney and board member of Greater St. Louis NORML–taking over as legal counsel and vigorously defending Ken. However, this infuriated the police and prosecutors, which led to an additional charge of distributing cannabis.
As a side note, by this time I became aware of Ken’s case and attended one of his court dates. We met briefly as he was leaving the courthouse and remained in contacting with each other over the coming months and years. So began our friendship.
Moving forward, while preparing a defense Mr. Welch uncovered several instances of the police violating Ken’s rights. His initial discovery was that an oath of affirmation that the police swore to stated that Ken had his basement windows covered when in fact Ken’s neighbors testified to Mr. Welch no such coverings ever existed. His second discovery was that the police coerced Ken’s friend into testifying that Ken sold this person cannabis, which was the basis for the additional Class C felony charge of distribution. This second discovery of witness tampering was something Ken eluded for the longest time to as “a nuclear bomb” that “will blow the prosecution’s case out of the water”.
From April of 2011 to May of 2012 both Mr. Welch and the prosecution filed a number of motions and subpoenas, while numerous hearings and trial dates were set and then pushed back.
Over that time, I saw Ken’s physical, mental, and emotional health decline due to lacking access to medical grades of cannabis combined with the weight of an impending trial and the potential of dying in prison for his use of cannabis looming over his head.
There were times the pain was so intense that he could barely sit up as the agony forced him to lean with his chest parallel to the ground as he craned his head sideways to look at you.
In fact, the stress of the trial coupled with his pre-existing conditions took such a toll on his heart that by May of 2012 Ken underwent triple bypass heart surgery. Resulting in the trial being further delayed.
Through all this Ken kept fighting for he knew that there is no inherent crime in growing or using cannabis and that the real crime is cannabis’ prohibition.
He not only fought for his own freedom but he also fought for everyone’s right to consume cannabis free of legal persecution.
Of course, this led to a frustrated and infuriated prosecution who by October of 2012 decided to take off the gloves and subpoena Beverly and Chris as witnesses for the prosecution.
Fortunately, for Ken, Mr. Welch’s legal maneuvering up to this point crippled the prosecution’s case and subpoenaing Ken’s wife and child were merely acts of desperation on prosecutions part. A last ditch effort to scare Ken into capitulating.
Defiantly Ken pressed on with the case knowing that Joseph Welch still had the a few motions to suppress as well as the witness-tampering card, mentioned earlier, to play.
However, I must state that Ken was reaching the end of his rope physically. He was scared that the stress of the trial coupled with how ill he felt from the recent heart surgery kill him before going to trial
On November 5, 6, and 7 2012 Mr. Welch filed numerous motions, notices and subpoenas mainly related to the witness tampering and although not every ruling fell in Ken’s favor enough rulings did fall in his favor to cause the prosecution to offer a reasonable plea deal—as reasonable as it gets when the laws are wrong.
The deal consisted of Ken pleading guilty to one count of possession of less than 35 grams and one count of unlawful use of drug paraphernalia for which he would pay 600 dollars in fines, or 300 dollars for each count.
When Ken told me about the plea and his decision to accept the deal, he felt ashamed. He felt like a coward who was letting everyone that supported him over the last two years down.
What I said to him them and am telling you now is that Ken is a hero who, despite his fears, fought against an unjust system that imprisons its citizens over trivial, counterproductive, and destructive policies that prohibit the use of cannabis and came out the victor. While it was not a complete victory, for he plead guilty to the misdemeanor charges, it was a victory for himself and cannabis consumers nonetheless.
In essence, he fought the law and he won, and I am proud to call him a friend
Unfortunately Ken’s victory was short lived.
Ken took ill around mid-March this year, thinking it was simply a cold he chose not visit the doctor. A week later, after rushing him to the hospital doctors discovered that he developed pneumonia. A week after that he unexpectedly passed away in his sleep while at the St. Louis VA hospital.
Despite the sad and tragic nature of his premature death, I choose to remember that ultimately Ken won a major victory against St Charles County’s prohibitionists and that victory allowed him to die as free as any person can while living under the shadow of this tyrannical prohibition of cannabis.
Ken felt a particular connection to the theme of this song:
Lindy-NO KNOCK RAID