Marilyn Greene-Campbell likes to say that on Aug. 24, 2009, she and her husband Gerry were forced to "come out of the basement."
She used it as a laugh line recently at the East Side Arts Co-op, addressing a "marijuana education day" put on by cannabis rights group Tennessee NORML celebrating 4/20. The Campbells had been invited to recount an ordeal that started three-and-a-half years ago, when sheriff's deputies and state drug agents pulled close to 300 marijuana plants from the crawlspace of their Cannon County home.
Getting busted, Marilyn told the crowd of aging hippies, dreadlocked kids and local libertarians, has allowed the couple to become vocal advocates for medical marijuana — something that wasn't possible when they were secretly cultivating what they believe to be a life-saving plant.
Unfortunately for Marilyn and Gerry, it also means they will face 24 months in federal prison.
Marilyn, in her early 60s with a hearty laugh, has been a practicing midwife for more than 35 years, while Gerry, in his 50s, is a soft-spoken, lanky songwriter who used to sell antiques on eBay — nobody's big-time drug dealers. But in what many would say is an example of the incoherent state of U.S. drug enforcement policy, they've pleaded guilty to a total of six federal drug charges including "conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute" marijuana — a substance two states voted last November to legalize.
According to events laid out in court papers from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Campbells' troubles began on Aug. 17, 2009, when "a Confidential Informant purchased two ounces of marijuana from Marilyn Greene, with money given to the CI by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department." This CI, Marilyn says, is a friend she used to play poker with occasionally. She says she simply never sold to anyone else.
A few days later on Aug. 24, according to court documents, "police approached Greene outside a bar in Nashville" and "a subsequent search of her vehicle led to her arrest by MNPD officers for possession of approximately one quarter pound of hydroponic marijuana with intent to sell."
Soon after, Gerry Campbell was roused from an Ambien-induced sleep to find TBI agents and sheriff's deputies on his doorstep, there to perform a "knock and talk."
Gerry, who was left with mild brain damage following a 1999 car wreck, gave agents, at least according to documents presented by prosecutors, "written consent to search" — something he says he has no memory of.
Inside, law enforcement found a laundry list of illicit items including "marijuana laid out to dry on four trays in a closet, a freezer containing three large, white trash bags ... with large amounts of marijuana in them," and "a glass pipe used for smoking marijuana." Eventually, under a trapdoor in the kitchen, agents found "a basement area which contained a sophisticated hydroponic marijuana operation" and "approximately 273 plants in various stages of growth."
The marijuana, Greene-Campbell says, was for Gerry, whose accident left him with debilitating muscle pain. Thanks to a case of Hepatitis C, it couldn't be managed with traditional liver-taxing meds. Growing their own pot just seemed like a natural remedy for a couple of self-described old hippies.
Gerry "got the idea from going to Disney World," Greene-Campbell said, chuckling. "If you go to EPCOT Center, they got plants growing in liquid ... [Prosecutors] called it a very sophisticated operation ... but the materials came from Lowes."
Worse, though, officers seized five guns, including a 9mm Makarov pistol and a semiautomatic SKS rifle. The prosecution argued these are "the kinds of weapons drug dealers possess to protect their operations."
After 23 days in county lockup, the couple began preparing for what they thought would be a local trial in a community where they were known and liked. But a year after the initial bust, they were told without further explanation that the case had been moved to federal court in Nashville. That meant that they were now looking at a draconian mandatory minimum sentence of 5-40 years. Soon after, the feds seized the home the couple built themselves, by hand, from timber they cleared on their property.
When contacted by the Scene, neither the U.S. attorney nor the DEA agent handling the case would comment, beyond the attorney's statement that the bust seized "a large amount of marijuana." But Marilyn and Gerry have never denied the basic facts. What they deny are the characterizations made by law enforcement and prosecutors that they are criminals.
"I think it's crazy that marijuana is a Schedule I drug, right up there with heroin and meth," Greene-Campbell told the Scene. "I would never do heroin or meth. ... A country that has alcohol legal and half the country is on some kind of doctor-prescribed stuff, that doesn't allow people to grow a plant that's beneficial — I mean, to me that's crazy."
As for the guns, they say that it's just part of living in a rural area near wildlife. "The guns were just there because we're Tennesseans," Marilyn joked. "Everybody in Tennessee has guns."
Strangely enough, it was that last line of reasoning that convinced the federal judge to shorten their sentences, offering them a statutory "safety valve" meant to protect first-time, nonviolent offenders.
So while 4/20 celebrators booed the fact that Marilyn and Gerry have to spend any time behind bars at all, the two are trying to stay positive. If there's one thing they're sorry for, they say, it's putting their friends and family through nearly four years of constant worry. Their focus now is planning to rebuild their life together after they get out. They have to turn themselves in by May 12.
"I've got four months' worth supply of food put away in our storage unit," Greene-Campbell told the Scene. "I bought tents so that if we have to camp, we can. ... I'd like to go west to where there's more open-minded people. I wanna just go somewhere where I can just hang out and mellow out."