After three years and several rescheduled court dates, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Kristoffer Lewandowski, who faced life in prison for growing six pot plants, can finally breathe easy.
On May 26, the San Juan Capistrano resident reached a plea agreement with the Comanche County district attorney's office in the notoriously canna-phobic state of Oklahoma that allows him to avoid any further jail time. According to Thomas Hurley, Lewandowski's Oklahoma-based attorney, his client pleaded guilty to a deferred felony charge for marijuana cultivation, meaning that if he does not violate the law during a five-year probation period, no felony will be placed on his record.
"It's been a big week, and I feel uplifted," Lewandowski says. "But I feel a bit the way I did when I was leaving Afghanistan. When we left, the fight wasn't over. There was another unit that was going to take over, and it felt like the job was not done. . . . Although the imminent danger that my life could have been over is gone, the fight is still so far from over." Lewandowski's saga is one the Weekly has covered extensively over the past year—and for a good reason. His story sheds light on the fact that much of the United States still abides by anachronistic cannabis-prohibition laws, despite the ongoing nationwide trend toward legalization.
Lewandowski participated in more than 150 combat patrols in Iraq and was deployed in an active combat zone in Northern Afghanistan over the course of 10 years. His sudden removal from active duty in the Middle Eastern combat zones to a sedentary life in rural Oklahoma triggered an onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The psychological and emotional weight of the bloodshed he knew he'd wrought haunted him. "What gets me more than anything was the acceptance of death and of taking life [in Afghanistan]," he told the Weekly's Nick Schou in an interview last September. "It was completely acceptable. It almost would have been unacceptable not to celebrate a successful firing operation, but now to think about every one of those rounds and what they did, I have a big issue living with that."
Lewandowski's PTSD peaked shortly after relocating stateside. One night while a friend was sleeping on his couch, Lewandowski sleepwalked and cleared the house of imaginary intruders. Then, on June 1, 2014, he got into an argument with Whitney, his wife and the mother of their three children, about the marijuana plants he was attempting to grow in the house. After she destroyed one of the plants in the heat of the moment, Lewandowski grabbed a knife, and Whitney fled to a neighbor's house with the kids. A brief standoff with police followed, leading them to discover the plants and charging Lewandowski with cultivating cannabis. Whitney told the Weekly last September that the deputies informed her that if she didn't press domestic-abuse charges against her husband, they'd also send her to jail for the plants. To keep from losing custody of their children, she followed their advice. After 11 days, however, child-welfare workers assessed the situation and determined that Lewandowski wasn't a threat to his family. The couple reunited and hasn't had an issue since.
After being charged with cultivating cannabis, the veteran felt cops were unjustly harassing him. Deputies arrested him for driving without a license, and later, they stopped and searched him while he was on foot, busting him for the possession of less than 1 gram of cannabis. While Lewandowski's family tried to raise money for a defense attorney, they received permission from the judge to move to Whitney's parents' house in Irvine.
Adjusting to civilian life in California was far from easy, however. In January 2015, Lewandowski checked himself into the VA's Long Beach mental ward. It was during his time there that Lewandowski first became familiar with the Weed for Warriors Project, which provides free cannabis to vets suffering from PTSD and a place for them to connect with others who are going through the same thing.
But the run-ins with law enforcement didn't stop. On June 20, 2015, a team of armed federal marshals arrested Lewandowski near his home in Irvine because he failed to appear at a pretrial hearing in Oklahoma (Lewandowski says he wasn't aware of it). Lewandowski spent the next week shackled in a bus on his way to Oklahoma, but as soon as Lewandowski appeared in court, the judge ordered he be allowed to return to California pending trial. On July 20, 2015, after more than a month in jail, he returned to Orange County.
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But now, the ordeal seems to be over. "Tens of thousands of people around the country who have remained steadfast in supporting Kris throughout this ordeal have shown we can make progress even in states like Oklahoma that have not yet recognized the many medical benefits of cannabis," says Matthew Pappas, Lewandowski's California-based attorney.
Adds Michael Minardi, a medical cannabis attorney based in Tampa, Florida, "The decision by Oklahoma to go from seeking years of prison time to no jail time at all and just a deferred felony is a huge victory for all of us in this country who are fighting for medical cannabis patients' rights." Minardi served as a part of Lewandowski's trial team.
Along with Weed for Warriors, Lewandowski has worked to support seriously ill and disabled citizens through the Human Solution International, an advocacy group dedicated to preventing the wrongful incarceration and criminal prosecutions of medical cannabis patients. He plans to run for a U.S. Congressional seat in 2018. "When it comes to the political side of it, I like the idea of being a veteran voice who is also in line with cannabis," says Lewandowski, who will speak at a cannabis conference on Friday. "There are lots of veterans' voices out there . . . but many of them are on the fence about cannabis or won't take a stance and put their political sway behind it, and I find that very upsetting."
For now, Lewandowski is sharpening his focus on establishing a veterans' cannabis legal fund to help vets who are unable to afford their defense. "That was a big problem for me in the beginning," he says. "We had no idea how we were going to fund this fight. I almost agreed to doing five years, minimum, because I thought that was the only option. . . . It's not right for anyone—but veterans, in particular—to have to go to jail because they can't afford to fight their case."