The state of Oklahoma was pursuing life in prison against an honorably discharged Marine who served his country for a decade.
“It is my right to choose the safest, most effective treatment for my PTSD and pain…pills or plant, it is what I fought for, it is what America stands for,”
said Kris Lewandowski, a combat Marine veteran who served three tours overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and off the coast of Somalia. But the life of this veteran and his family for the past 3 years, “has been nothing short of hell” over a plant. Lewandowski, obviously shaken, recalls the misery,
“It has been harder on me psychologically and emotionally than even my deployments were. I am in America but I am fighting for my rights, my freedom…over a plant. Cannabis saved my life. It’s my medicine. I believe in my soul that I have earned the right to consume a plant in America, to choose my medicine.”
Kris was set for trial in Lawton, Oklahoma on May 30, 2017. He was facing ten years to life in prison for growing 6 cannabis plants to treat his PTSD and combat injuries after the pharmaceuticals had failed him. When a MassRoots blog detailing the case went viral after it’s May 18th publishing, the prosecutors for the case finally changed their position and offered a plea deal that meant no jail, and a deferred sentence. Kris would remain a veteran, not become a felon. The blog reached the masses, and the masses mattered, it made “the” difference. People lept into action, sharing the blog, tweeting, emailing, and calling…in droves.
“Every case needs media attention. It literally makes all the difference. In three years they hadn’t thrown out any deals at all. They [the prosecutors] told us so many times there would never be a deal. Right before trial, after that blog went viral, we get a plea offer with no jail. After we get a large media push? That is no coincidence, but it was certainly magical,”
said Kris’s wife, Whitney Lewandowski, “That exposure was exactly what made the state rethink this case and their ‘war on Kris’. The post went viral and they started throwing out deals and trying to make something work to make it go away. It wasn’t a dismissal, but it was a victory. The day has finally arrived, it feels like I’m in a dream. This nightmare is finally over. Our future is bright again. I am humbled by the outpouring of love and support we got over the years. We are blessed with an amazing family, and group of friends who stuck by us at our bleakest time. Supporters and strangers who never turned their backs on us. Some days they were all that got us through.”
It’s harder than ever to be heard above the “noise” of the world. Even though the internet and social media make it easier, it is still like screaming during a concert hoping the artist on stage hears you over the thousands of other fans trying to get their attention, and actually hear them sing.
When people are fighting for their lives and want their voices to be heard. Any case needs to get media attention, because the right media attention reaches the masses. That means their case has a better chance of garnering support and getting the attention needed to put pressure on prosecutors to do the right thing, to stop injustice, and to make plea deals with no jail and deferred sentences if dismissal is not an option.
Kristoffer Lewandowski served 10 years in the United States Marine Corps and was a member of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. PTSD and combat injuries to his shoulder and back were a constant battle after his deployments and worsened over the years. The numerous daily prescribed pharmaceuticals weren’t helping, his pain was becoming unmanageable and the pills were causing liver damage, so they gave him another prescription.
He became addicted to the legally prescribed pills, he became eruptive, depressed, angry and physically was starting to show signs of the pharmaceutical damage. He was unable to serve the Corps as he had done so faithfully before. “I felt broken. I didn’t feel like a soldier anymore. It was devastating. I started trying to wean off some of the pills, I was desperate, but the withdrawals were vicious. It was a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ situation, but the liver damage was killing me, the pills were changing me” said a tearful Lewandowski.
He was a Marine instructor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma and was processing for medical retirement when, on June 1, 2014, after a PTSD flair up, no effective medicine, withdrawals from antidepressants and a postpartum Whitney, a heated argument broke out and escalated into screams that had neighbors calling in a domestic dispute.
The police arrived, the search found six cannabis plants and the almost three year nightmare began. But this time, the nightmare was temporary and the story has a happy ending, even in Oklahoma, where laws against cannabis patients and consumers are some of the harshest in the US.
Lewandowski’s plea hearing was held Friday, May 26, 2017, at the Comanche County Courthouse in Lawton, Oklahoma, and for the first time in their three year ordeal, the prosecutors and the DA were offering Kris Lewandowski a no jail, deferred sentence deal, no felony. The Marine veteran was treated with regard rather than disdain in the Judge Emmitt Tayloe courtroom. The DA didn’t have degrading remarks or sneering looks for Lewandowski as he had experienced before, it was a mutually beneficial resolve for the court and the defendant, an example of how our system should and could be.
But it took three years and an alignment of stars to get an acceptable plea deal that didn’t include jail, felony or both. A legal team from across the US who dedicated to representing him for little or no cost; fellow veterans offering support; friends and family standing by them; people and organizations raising funds; supporters and activists dedicating time and money to spreading the word about the case; and a blog that was shared thousands of times in the first 24 hours it was published. It was a rare moment most defendants in cannabis cases will never have.
This case is important for veterans, as well as all cannabis patients. It sets a precedent and can help others convince leaders of the injustice of prosecuting cannabis patients. “This case demonstrates that we can, by working together, change cannabis policy and perception,” said Matthew Pappas, a California-based attorney who has been working on Lewandowski’s case since 2014, “Even in states that continue to persecute patients and cling tight to unjust, outdated laws.”
Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist said, “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” For three years, Lewandowski’s case has brought a new face to cannabis patients and veterans that choose a plant over pills to treat their PTSD and service related injuries. It may not have been “the” world but it was “their world” and if it can happen to Kris, it can happen to any veteran.
Until US laws catch up with logic and science regarding the cannabis plant, scenarios like this will become more and more common. “Our efforts to keep Kris out of jail were successful because so many people came together effectively on his behalf,” said his Oklahoma-based attorney, Thomas Hurley.
“If we unite towards a common goal, we can literally move mountains,” said Lewandowski, who is now considering a run for California Congress, “In this three-year plight, my wife and family and freedom were at stake. I almost lost all that I hold most dear. We will win this war. This attack on citizens and soldiers simply trying to heal themselves. United…together, we will prevail. Divided, our battle is much more difficult and the end result unsure.” He and his wife, Whitney, are the State Co-Chairs for the American Medical Refugees Foundation, a nonprofit in Colorado and are both active in the Weed for Warriors Project. Their goal is help other veterans, patients and consumers have legal access to cannabis medicine and support for their injury, illness or disease.
Michael Minardi, a Florida-based attorney who has been helping with the case thinks this is only the beginning, and stresses the importance of unity, “Stand by your fellow soldiers who are being prosecuted for using cannabis medicine. Talk to your legislators, your representatives, your Senators, local and federal. Run for office and educate people to the benefits of medical cannabis and we will see veteran suicide decline. We owe a debt of gratitude to all veterans, servicemen and women. I will continue to fight for and serve veterans’ and all American citizens’ rights to use cannabis as medicine.”
This post was originally published on May 30, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.