THE WAR ISN’T OVER: My Dad Was Sentenced to 93 Years in Prison for Marijuana

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I first met Anna Foster in 2008, shortly before Barack Obama was elected President and Attorney General Eric Holder issued the Ogden Memo, which would spark a massive boom in the marijuana industry. I had just started working for “Guru of Ganja”, Ed Rosenthal at Quick Trading Company where Anna managed administrative tasks for Rosenthal’s book and pesticide lines. Anna’s entire life has been defined by the War on Drugs, both for good and for bad. When Anna was just 11-years-old, her father, Will Foster, was arrested and sentenced to 93 years in prison for growing a sealed 5 x 5 foot garden in the basement of his Tulsa, Oklahoma home to alleviate the symptoms of degenerative arthritis. 

ANGELA BACCA: What do you remember from the day your dad was arrested?

ANNA FOSTER:  It was right after Christmas, 1995. I lived with my mom at the time, so I wasn’t there when he was arrested.

Anna Foster, before her dad was arrested.

Anna Foster, before her dad was arrested.

When I came for my weekend visit, we had a family meeting. He said, “Well, I have been busted for marijuana, I am in a lot of trouble and I don’t know what is going to happen. I am going to fight my case.” I remember being shocked. I knew he smoked, he never did it in front of me but I was aware.

I didn’t know he was growing marijuana until after he was busted and I had gotten a little older. He was having a lot of health problems. I was 11-years-old and back then there wasn’t much awareness about medical cannabis. It was new; Prop. 215 hadn’t passed in California yet. I knew he was taking prescription medications and they were making him moody and lethargic.

He fought his case and he felt like he had a good chance and a good defense. I think he had a lot of faith in the system, he never thought it would be 93 years. Who would conceive of that? Ed Rosenthal came and was an expert witness and he testified on his behalf about the cultivation aspect of the technicalities, the street value and other technical things the police tried to elaborate against him. I knew the defense was related to medical but I think that was more so after he received his sentence, and I think Ed had a lot to do with that, about creating awareness. There was still newness of medical cannabis; California was ready to do it. A lot of people had a lot of compassion for it, no one wants to see anyone go to jail for medicine.

AB: Growing up, what was your view of marijuana? Did you see it as a hard drug?

AF: I never thought it was a hard drug because my parents did it and they were loving people. I knew because of D.A.R.E. and living in Tulsa that you couldn’t talk about it and if anyone else knew, you could get in trouble for it. I had friends whose parents smoked pot, and we all knew to keep quiet. When he got in trouble, I always thought it was something to hide and to be ashamed of.

AB: Being 11-years-old, did your dad’s situation affect you at school and other social interactions?

AF: I remember the day he went to jail. It was the last day of his trial. I remember this popular girl being in front of us and I didn’t want to kiss my dad while I was being dropped off. Like… “Come on dad!” I was in middle school. Because of stupidity and not knowing better I just hopped out of the car. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him for a long time…

AB: How did you react when you heard about the sentence?

AF: When I got home his wife was there, her family was there, but my dad wasn’t there. I think that is probably something… everyone was just crying. He called and we talked on the phone and I just remember crying and not really understanding. I kept asking, “When am I going to see you again?” He was heartbroken. I know it was hard for him.

He just answered it truthfully and said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s happening.” That was pretty much it. At the time I lived with him but then I had to go live with my mom. My family split up when he went to prison. My dad had been doing really well for himself. He had a computer business; he was self-employed and making pretty good money. He was able to provide a nice place to live, stability. It was nice to not have to worry about poverty. My mom lives paycheck to paycheck. When he went to jail, I went from living in a really nice house to a one-bedroom apartment.

AB: You were in middle school, that’s when looks are everything.

AF: It was challenging. I went to prep school; there were a lot of people who had lots of money, nice houses, everything they wanted. They didn’t have to worry about anything.

AB: Did other kids at school know your dad was in jail?

Anna and her dad Will Foster in California, early 2000s.

Anna and her dad Will Foster in California, early 2000s.

AF: My closest friends knew, it wasn’t something I just came out and told anybody. They had to be my friends.  It wasn’t until I got a little older that he started appearing on TV.

[Will Foster spent 4.5 years in prison, his story slowly gained steam and garnered media coverage- including Frontline and Dateline special reports- which led to his resentencing and eventual release.]

At that point, he had just been wasting away in jail for four years. [The media coverage] was empowering for him. When I saw him in High Times I was more relaxed about it and not so much ashamed. I wasn’t as worried about being judged anymore.

I probably should tell you… I only saw my dad twice in that time. My mom never had extra money to take me to see him or put money on the phone to talk to him. They [the prison system] would ship him around so sometimes he would be in Texas or sometimes down in Southern Oklahoma. I remember writing him letters and then not writing them for a while and feeling guilty for not writing him. I tried not to think about not having him in my life but things would build up and I would just wish he was there.

But, one day I got home from school and there was a note on the door saying, “I am grabbing something to eat, be right back, love Dad.”

AB: Did you know he was getting out?

AF: No! I ran over to my friend’s house and was like “Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh!” and then I ran home to wait for him. I sat on his lap and hugged him and wouldn’t let him go. I was sixteen years old but I didn’t care, I was so happy to see him. He told me he had to leave the state within 24 hours [as a condition of his parole] and he would be moving to California the next day.

…I remember the first time I visited him out here [California]. I was amazed to be with my dad, I was amazed with Oakland. I just had to move here so I moved in with my dad. He had gotten an apartment in affluent Piedmont, so that I could go to a good school. While I was at school my dad was arrested again for violating parole—he was 45 miles outside of his allowed radius. He had been working as an expert witness and had to leave the county to take pictures for a trial he was hired to work. He spent six months in jail while he fought extradition back to Oklahoma. I was 16-years-old and had a whole apartment to myself with no parents.

AB: Nobody stepped in? 

AF: Ed [Rosenthal] stepped in.  Jose Gutierrez [a friend and activist] stepped in; Jose paid my rent for a month and bought me groceries. He would also come over to check in with me. Ed and his wife, Jane Klein, asked me to live with them while I figured out what to do. I graduated high school and neither of my parents were there. My grandparents came and Ed and Jane came. That’s it.

AB: What brought you to Drug War activism?

AF: I had started working at Clear Test, it was a company that made products to help people pass drug tests. The owner, Mary Ann Graynor, who was friends with Anita Hoffman [Abby Hoffman’s wife], had mentored her into the drug testing business. When Hoffman passed away from cancer, Mary Ann started the company.

Mary Ann had to do a lot of advocating, speaking in Congress about her business because they were trying to shut her down and make her products illegal. She had to advocate on behalf [of her customers] on the basis that [drug testing] was discriminatory, a civil rights issue, there was a lot of advocacy in that job. We weren’t just selling our products to people who needed to pass a pee test; we were giving people information and advice. I got calls from people who had been working at a company for 20 years and had never been tested. I was talking to people who were going through this stuff every day: losing their kids, their families, their jobs, their benefits and their opportunities.

AB: Had you already considered yourself an activist?

AF: I went through this really bad experience and [the Drug War] caused a lot of suffering for a lot of people but at the same time it was something I couldn’t get away from no matter what I did. I was propelled into this movement.

When I came to California, my dad was very active. He was speaking at events like Seattle Hempfest. I was fortunate enough to know Ed [Rosenthal] and be someone who was close to him when a lot of people wanted to be close to him and it wasn’t just me wanting to be, it just naturally happened. It’s just the way the universe…. the way the cookie crumbles, you know. It was an important time to grow for me. I went from a child to a young adult and realized things about life and reality and the systems and structures we live in. It was a really humbling experience.

AB: You found a family in activism. 

AF: Yes, and I had lots of opportunities and the availability to meet people. That was when I really started becoming an advocate. He was active in his own right and I guess it wore off on me a little bit.

AB: Your entire life has been defined by marijuana culture and definitely Drug War culture. How do you think your life would be different if the Drug War didn’t exist? I know that is a loaded question but…

AF: No I get the question, I struggle with it a lot. It’s such an awful thing, Children don’t ask to go through these things but-

AB: They get punished although they did nothing.

Yeah… and I understand that logic and that feeling. I understand feeling like a victim and having no control over things and feeling like I have to go through it. I get that. But at the same time, if I hadn’t had all these experiences then I wouldn’t be the person who I am and I like who I am. I like the opportunities I have from cannabis. It’s a double-edged sword. [The Drug War] is the thing that hurt me the most but [marijuana activism] has been the best for me. I grapple with it a lot; is it really worth your life and your freedom? Should I just stop doing it? I face that dichotomy a lot. What is really the best thing? Advocating? Not? Is it really worth fighting for?

AB: What do you think? Is it?

AF: (Sighs) I would say yes. There is a lot of compassion that comes with [the marijuana activism community]. Marijuana makes people connect, it makes them talk, it really helps sick people. There are a lot of reasons to fight for it, the whole politics of it, you know? The prison system. Racism.

There are two sides the everything though. There is our view, and then there is the other view, you know what I mean? Which side are you on?

AB: When you say our view and the other view, if someone from the other side of the fence would hear your story they would probably say your dad shouldn’t have smoked pot, you shouldn’t have smoked pot, he shouldn’t have been growing pot. What would you say to that?

AF: I would say just because it’s a law doesn’t mean its right. I encourage people to get educated about it and find out what kind of people are going to jail, what kind of people use marijuana.

Me, Anna, Ed Rosenthal and the Kush Boys at the Los Angeles THC Expo, 2009.

Anna, Ed Rosenthal and the Kush Boys at the Los Angeles THC Expo, 2009.

AB: What do you think the perception is of people who go to jail for marijuana?

AF: If you are educated you can look at the statistics and see it is a war on people who are usually of color or living in poverty. Those are the people who are in jail but not necessarily all the people who use. I think the perception of marijuana has changed now but before it was someone who was a druggie or addict.

AB: I wanted people to hear your story because your dad wasn’t a druggie, you were the normal American, Oklahoma-white bread family before all this happened.

AF: Yeah, it affects a lot of people. It’s unfair and unjust. That is the whole point. The political motivation behind it is prison systems and money and its people’s lives and family that are being torn apart. It’s just not right.

AB: If your dad had not been re-sentenced and released early, he would still have 75 years left on his sentence. How do you think your life would have been different?

AF: There would be no relationship [between my dad and I]. He has been in jail for about ten years altogether fighting parole violations, always on technicalities and bad paperwork. That’s the story of his life.

Parole is fucked up, it’s designed to keep you in the system. You never have a chance at a normal life and you will never be successful. You can’t get a job, people are always suspicious of you and you are always the first person to go to jail. I mean, you can’t really ever have a normal life. All throughout my whole 20’s, he has been in and out of jail. There have been times I really needed him. There have been a lot of situations where it would be nice to have him.

AB: What are you doing now? 

AF: Now I work at Dark Heart Nursery, I do admin and nursery propagation on a commercial scale. I’ve done a lot of pest and plant research and work hands on with the cannabis plant. Its nice to be able to be in the marijuana industry. My work is very official, completely legal and professional; it is really great to be involved with something like that and enjoy it. Aside from my day job, there is 3 Ladies, a women’s owned garden co-op founded by myself and two other girlfriends. I’m also honored to say I’ve just been signed onto Apothecary Genetics as their social media coordinator working directly with Bret Bogue. So I am very grateful to be an industry that is growing, innovative, and is about more than just money.

So kind of like Happy Buds, I live a cannabis lifestyle. I smoke every day and am high functioning. I get to live free in Oakland, I love it. Last weekend I got to vaporize in box suites at an A’s game and smoke in a nightclub the evening before. You can’t do that everywhere, I fell very appreciative that I can live how I am and be proud of who I am. It’s me, its my story, it has meaning for me. I love that I can live my lifestyle and not go to jail for it. Sometimes I want to go back home, it’s a great place to raise a family, but I cant until the laws change. Oklahoma is home to me. I want to fight for the freedom for other people to do what they want to. How many people get to do all the great things I do? And really live how they want to live? That’s what this movement is about. Freedom, Love. And Cannabis.