Edwin Rubis recalls finding phrases from a Bible verse penciled faintly onto the wall of his jail cell a few days after his 1998 arrest on drug charges. The passage, from Psalm 88, says, “They have left me among the dead, and I lie like a corpse in a grave. I am forgotten. … I am in a trap with no way of escape.”
Those words still echo in his mind 24 years later as Rubis, now 53, sits in prison, serving a 40-year sentence for breaking federal marijuana trafficking laws. With good behavior, his projected release date won’t come until August 2032, after he spends another decade behind bars.
Rubis has challenged his sentence, asked multiple U.S. presidents for a commutation, sought compassionate release during the COVID-19 pandemic and requested a sentence reduction, all to no avail. His sentence remains intact.
His case – which caught the attention of the Last Prisoner Project and other advocacy groups pushing for the release of people in prison for cannabis crimes – is a prime example of how severely the U.S. criminal justice system has penalized marijuana-related offenses, with especially long prison terms for defendants with criminal records.
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Prosecutors made their case against Rubis, describing a yearslong conspiracy involving six co-defendants and at least 1,000 kilograms of marijuana on multiple occasions. In the end, they said Rubis bore responsibility for 3,659 kilograms, or more than 8,000 pounds, of the illegal substance.
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A jury convicted Rubis on every charge, then authorities said he should receive a punishment at the high end of the sentencing range, based in part on his leadership role in the conspiracy, his possession of a firearm, his misbehavior during the proceedings and his criminal record.
His attorneys wrote in a 2020 court filing that Rubis didn't mastermind the conspiracy. They said he received a steep sentence for the nonviolent offense because of a “trial penalty” that occurs when people who exercise their constitutional right to trial “receive drastically more severe sentences … than if they had accepted a guilty plea without contesting their case.”
Still, his sentence has stuck.
Severe punishment and an enduring sense of hope
By all accounts, Rubis, a father of three, has made good rehabilitative use of his time in prison, with a transformation rooted in education and religion.
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His attorneys said he has completed more than 30 education programs, including a dental assistant certification, a GED, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Christian counseling. He has been a tutor and minister to those around him. He has won the support of prison staff. Two unit managers, a chaplain and the library supervisor wrote memos in 2020 lauding Rubis for gaining the maturity, knowledge and skills he has needed to become a role model.
Even as bleak fragments from Psalm 88 echo in his ears, Rubis told the USA TODAY Editorial Board that he clings to more hopeful passages and a sense of purpose.
“I picture myself not as a criminal, not as a convict, but as a man with a dream; of one day being a spiritual coach and mentor out in society. That's what keeps me going,” he wrote in an email. “That's what gives me hope.”
Disparities unmistakable as legal marijuana grows
Reviewing and revising criminal sentences imposed decades ago is no simple or small undertaking. But it's tough to stomach the idea that someone like Rubis will spend yet another decade behind bars because of marijuana. How many others like him are there? How many people of color sit in prison for marijuana offenses, while an overwhelmingly white class of cannabis entrepreneurs capitalizes on a burgeoning legal industry?
Of the more than 11,500 people sitting in federal prison primarily for marijuana offenses a decade ago, 59% were Hispanic, as is Rubis, 13.9% were Black and 24% were white.
Meanwhile, just 5.7% of the business owners in the state-legal cannabis industry were Hispanic/Latino, 4.3% were Black, 2.4% were Asian and an overwhelming 81% were white, according to a 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily.
We have called on Congress to legalize cannabis and shift its stance from prohibition to regulation, and we have praised the new, comprehensive Senate bill for its focus on the right priorities.
Now, as lawmakers seek common ground on a path forward, we implore them to keep the conversation focused on the humans caught up in the war on drugs.
People like Edwin Rubis should not be stuck for another decade in federal prison for selling marijuana. They must not be forgotten.
This editorial is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.