"I lived in Humboldt County. I grew marijuana. And I sold pot."
So went Brett McFarland's recent confession in the Journal office last week, days before he would be sentenced to five years in federal prison on marijuana charges. McFarland pleaded guilty Feb. 24 to conspiring to distribute marijuana he grew between 2008 and 2011, in a case that gathered much local attention in the last few years.
He says it was hard for him to reach out to the media — not wanting attention or pity for his plight, and he seems genuine. "I don't say any of this stuff not to take responsibility for what I did," McFarland said. He knew there were risks involved, but to him, the story is all about harsh sentencing under federal drug laws that, yes, tore his family apart.
McFarland and his wife, Julia, came to the Journal office on a cold, blustery Wednesday afternoon as he prepared to fly to his hearing in a South Dakota courtroom. Work pants covered in mud, a scruffy, close-cropped beard and dirt under his fingernails, he said he'd been scrambling to put things in order before his commitment. (He must remand himself into custody in the next two weeks.) McFarland was one of several people — including his brother and his sister's boyfriend — indicted in the federal marijuana conspiracy case that followed a few Humboldt County raids in 2012.
Excluding his co-conspirators, McFarland is far from alone. As he’s quick to point out, thousands of people, many (and by disproportionate numbers) black, are locked up in federal prisons for nonviolent drug offenses. A very high — 98 percent, by his telling — conviction rate convinced McFarland to seek a plea deal, despite the fact that he was never busted with pot, he insists, nor was any of his pot ever intercepted by police. It was a “drugless bust,” he says and, according to his research, it’s not uncommon. “It’s very prosecutable. It’s very convictable.”
McFarland's story highlights some very real consequences of the war on drugs: the human and community toll, and the disparity between federal and state drug charges — particularly mandatory minimum sentencing law.
It's this issue that leaves McFarland the most exasperated. Despite having no prior record and no allegations of violence in his pot-growing operation, McFarland was given the mandatory minimum sentence for federal drug offenders: five years in prison. During sentencing, McFarland said the judge told the courtroom that a lower sentencing would just be overturned in appeals court, and urged those gathered who disagreed with minimum sentencing to write to Congress. "She basically said, 'Listen, I can't do anything different,'" McFarland said.
One way to get out of a minimum mandatory sentence, McFarland said, is to cooperate with prosecutors — to sing. McFarland said he wasn't willing to do that, instead trying to prove to the court that his role in the distribution was small enough to be considered for the “safety valve,” which grants a judge the discretion of lower sentences for first-time offenders whose role didn’t include price-setting or management in the organization.Apparently, by the judge’s standards, McFarland’s role was significant enough not to qualify for the safety valve.
So, the five-year sentence stands even as the federal stance on mandatory minimum sentences seems to be slackening. In August of last year, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to U.S. attorneys, ordering them not to seek mandatory minimums on certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders — "those with no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels," according to a CNN report.
“Lessening the use of mandatory minimums — sentences that require a "one-size-fits-all" punishment for those convicted of federal and state crimes — could mark the end of the tough-on-crime era that began with strict anti-drug laws in the 1970s and accelerated with mandatory minimum prison sentences and so-called three-strikes laws,” the article read.
McFarland says that's the reason he reached out: His aim was to shed light on what he sees as an egregious flaw in America's drug policy. It's hard not to feel some of the charm McFarland exudes, and some of the reserved sadness that hovers between him and his wife as they talk about their future.
More than 40 people wrote letters on his behalf — including HSU professors, a doctor, a middle school employee, and a graduate student — urging leniency and stressing his contributions to our community.
Former prosecutor and Humboldt County DA candidate Paul Hagen wrote, "Perhaps most impressive to me is the nature of Brett's leadership qualities and how he creates community by dint of his personality. ... He has much to give to the communities of which he is a part, and does so freely by his nature."
You might have seen McFarland selling beef at the Arcata Farmers Market or strumming his guitar at parties, but it'll be a long time before he does that again. He's passionate about renovating homes, reclaiming redwood from dilapidated barns and generally helping his friends and family. "I'm basically a worker bee," he said. "I have grown so many frickin' tomatoes, castrated cattle, pruned grapes. I'm a goddam farmer and I grew pot just like any other crop."
Starting in the next few weeks, Julia will manage their business alone, going about her busy life (she also works for North Coast Children's Services) until Brett's eventual release. "It makes me mad," she said. "It makes me distrust our government more than ever. ... They're taking valuable community members and putting them in prison."
Brett and Julia are cautiously optimistic about changing public opinion on marijuana and its strict federal enforcement, but they're both frustrated by the pace. "The country is dealing with a change in the laws and it's just going to take too long to help Brett," Julia said. Brett said he told his brother — who's already in custody — about the now famous New Yorker interview in which Barack Obama said he didn't see marijuana as any more harmful than alcohol or cigarettes. "That's all frickin' great," his brother told him with a sigh. "Attitudes have changed but the laws have not changed."Editor's note: This story was changed from a previous version to include more content and to correct a misattributed quote.