Robert Duncan moved from Los Angeles to Northern California in 2010 to manage marijuana growing operations for a collective of medical marijuana dispensaries. Although California voters legalized medical cannabis more than 17 years ago, the plant remains illegal under federal law, and the Obama administration launched a renewed crackdown on marijuana in California in 2011.
That October, Duncan’s grow house was raided. A few months later, U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner indicted him and others involved in the dispensary business on the grounds that it had grown too large. Despite California’s struggle with prison overcrowding, and despite new federal guidelines that say size should no longer be considered in prosecution decisions, Duncan, 31, was sentenced to two years in prison. He is scheduled to report to Mendota Federal Correctional Institution near Fresno, Calif., on Monday afternoon. HuffPost Live will go with him.
This is his story:
I got my undergraduate degree in communication design from a Cal State school in 2006. I worked in television production in Los Angeles for a couple years, then I worked in marketing, then I got laid off because of the economy.
I grew up up north, in the Bay Area, and I knew these guys starting a medical marijuana business through a family friend. They called me up and asked if I was interested, said they needed someone to manage the growing aspect of it. I had very little experience with growing.
I paid about $800 to consult with a lawyer who specializes in this field before I said yes. He said, “You know, they don’t really raid anymore, these things are fewer and fewer far between.” If they do go after people, he said, they go after the kingpin, the person who’s in charge of everything.
So with that knowledge, and without having a job, I decided to go for it. It seemed exciting. I’ve had family members who have had problems with cancer. From their own personal accounts, marijuana helps them more than anything the doctors can prescribe. It was rewarding, in that regard -- to be able to help them with their own struggles. Some of the plants that I grew and the medicines I made were specifically for family members.
I designed the grow rooms with the help of a local hydroponic store. Did the scheduling, decided which nutrients to feed the plants, when they were going to get harvested. I was constantly working to upgrade the efficiency of the grow room environment and thinking of new ways to make things better. I enjoyed the work. It was rewarding. It was fun gardening. It turned out to be an extremely challenging job. Maybe 80 hours a week.
I honestly had some stereotypes of what I expected to see when I got into the business -- people who probably really didn’t need marijuana for medicinal purposes. But I was actually quite surprised to see people who were battling cancer, in wheelchairs, suffering from chronic pain from car accidents. It was quite justified. We had thousands and thousands of members of our cooperatives.
We hired lawyers from day one. We were entirely compliant with state law. It was shortly after the federal government said it would not intervene if people followed state law. We wanted to abide by the rules. None of us had criminal backgrounds. We’re all regular guys. The only reason we got into this was because the federal government said they wouldn’t intervene.
One of our stores in Sacramento, Medizen, was broken into once, and robbed once. Both times the police responded and police reports were filed, proving we were interacting with law enforcement like any other business would.
I was there during the raid. A SWAT team came, like 10 cop cars, news vans. They had the whole building surrounded -- assault rifles, police dogs. They came in with guns pointed at us, saying, “We’re the good guys, we just want to make sure you’re okay and get you out of here.” They had us come out one at a time, handcuffed us. Took us downtown for questioning.
After the raid, I got back into sales and worked steadily, a couple different sales jobs. I was recently promoted as sales manager for a merchandising company in the Bay Area.
The indictment wasn’t until the following year. I was charged with the manufacturing of marijuana. I’ve been trying to keep quiet through that and not upset the feds and try to keep a low profile because I was the third name listed in the indictment, so there was the owner, the director, and then me of least importance -- I wasn’t even an owner, didn’t have any stake in the company, didn’t have any ownership of anything. My whole strategy all along has been to try and be as compliant as possible and benefit from all the big bucks that the owners of the company were spending on attorneys. I spent about $30,000 in legal fees.
I took a plea deal. My plea bargain was written in such a way that I could negotiate down to just probation with the judge. So early on, I was kind of led to believe that was a realistic possibility. But as the case progressed and I learned how conservative the judge and the prosecutor were, that seemed less and less likely.
I didn’t find out until shortly before the actual sentencing that I would have to go to jail. The prosecutor recommended 24 to 30 months, and I was sentenced to two years in December. I guess I got the lower end of the sentence.
The owner of the company, [Matt] Davies, has two young children and he got five years. The other co-defendant got three and a half and is having to sell his house. Now that all three of us are sentenced, the case is pretty much closed.
It boils down to the feds wanting to make an example out of us. There’s no rhyme or reason, no formulas, like the feds saying you have too many patients or you have too many profit dollars. And actually, we really weren’t making that much money because we were just reinvesting into the company. And I didn’t see any of that anyways. I just had a modest salary. President Obama saying that marijuana is like a vice similar to alcohol, maybe there’s a bigger strategy there and he’s trying to ramp up for a bigger policy change. But the snapshot of right now -- it couldn’t be a more insulting slap in the face.
My new boss was sympathetic, which was comforting. I had been dreading telling him for weeks. I was very candid with him; told him exactly what had been going on. Everyone’s been really supportive. I’m just trying to stay positive, enjoy my time with my friends and family.
I’m going to try to keep myself as occupied as I can while I’m away. Try to get an online MBA, read a lot, be as prepared and sharp as I can be to go back into the working world. I want to get into a more traditional line of work, ideally sustainable energy or sustainable transportation.
I've used some of the skills I learned growing marijuana to successfully clone old growth coastal redwood trees. I plan to continue where I left off when I get out. I had been getting my graduate degree in environmental resource management when all this happened -- I had to withdraw after my first class.
I have to surrender by 2 p.m. [West Coast time] on Monday. My dad or someone else will just drop me off there. It’s really hard to find good information about federal prison, the do’s and don’ts, what to expect, what you can bring, what you can say. It’s kind of like falling into a black hole. I’m going to be very out of water.
Duncan's story has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about his case and sign the petition calling for his release here.