John Knock strikes from hippie-era hashish operator to doubling life sentences for nonviolent crimes

John Knock is the ultimate example of the past coming back to haunt you and some more.

The story of the now 73-year-old is about a person who can withstand a barrage of legal tests and somehow get to the other side with a still intact sense of humor and humanity. If it was fiction it could be inspiring. Instead, it is another tragic example of the American judicial system and the war on drugs.

Even so, John Knock will be the first to say that without his family, he likely would not have received life imprisonment for a non-violent cannabis crime.

A product of the counterculture becomes an international refugee

A self-described 1960s product, John Knock was at the height of the counterculture movement in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The Indiana minister’s son was enjoying life in the Bay Area, remembering free concerts in the park with acts like Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. He would also attend peace rallies in Berkeley. How many did he enjoy his pot. In time, Knock would be drawn to the illegal pot trade.

His love of the plant and his commitment to the counterculture movement grew as he began touring the world, including hiking the 1970s hippie trail. The trails allowed him to see parts of Asia and Europe. A long stay in India ended with a year-long stay in Mendocino County, where he built a hut. During that time, he said he was drawn into the illegal cannabis trade.

The 1980s brought additional opportunities to the international illegal cannabis market when European operators and Knock worked together to import hashish into Canada. Around ’86 or ’87 Knock was faced with a choice: Live on the go, live the illegal lifestyle or pursue a career and build a family with his wife Naomi, who had been together since the early 1970s. He chose the latter.

“She had come to terms with me for ten years and it was my time to live a different life,” he explained.

John Knock said he had officially retired and withdrew from the operation. He claims that, to the best of his knowledge, the company broke up and everyone involved stopped working. The linchpin of family life gained momentum when Naomi was accepted into a doctoral program in Hawaii. The family uprooted so they could complete their education. There Knock received a phone call warning him that he was a DEA target for crimes committed between 1984 and 1993.

The father, fisherman and husband, who stayed home and had not committed any other crimes, was at a loss. On the advice of lawyers and in view of the impending arrest, he fled the country.

From 1993 to 1996, Knock and others escaped operation officials. Over the next three years, several higher-ups were caught and prosecuted. Authorities claim Knock was eventually considered a co-conspirator because others were given informed consent during their prosecution.

In 1996, Julie Roberts, a mail dump and money collector in the group, reached out and took Knock on a payphone call in Paris, France in 1996 as part of her plea. He was arrested as soon as he answered the call. For the next three years, Knock fought against extradition to the United States. Knock noted that Roberts wouldn’t spend a day in jail because of her involvement, claiming she walked away with millions.

Knock recalls that the French prison system was less violent than what he had seen at one point in America, but France’s austerity measures held on to it. “You were locked in a 12” by 12 “room with two or three other people 23 hours a day with the bathroom in the corner,” he recalled. During his time in the French system, he reported seeing only two fights between prisoners.

John Knock was eventually extradited to the United States under an agreement that he would not serve more than 20 years in prison. Instead, the Florida Northern District conspiracy charges of importing, distributing, and laundering money resulted in Knock receiving two life sentences plus twenty years in 2000.

“As soon as I was on American soil, they replaced my indictment,” said Knock.

He also alleged that the court used imaginary weights and sums to increase the charges against him. “The whole process mechanism was so much controlled by the judge,” said Knock, whose frustration was felt as he recalled the case.

Life in American Prison for John Knock

John Knock would live in two types of American prisons. While he awaited trial, he found himself in a holdover situation that he believed was a breeding ground for inmates trying to gain a foothold in their cases. “A lot of the people in the holdings are there to get a foothold in someone else’s case so they can shorten their sentences,” Knock said. He said that while prisoners seek to gain advantage by providing information, police urged inmates to learn or to impose lengthy sentences.

Knock said there was minimal violence in holdover. This would not be the case if he reached his first prison, FCI Edgefield, in South Carolina. Knock was jumped when getting off the bus. His jaw was out of place and his eye socket bone broke along with several teeth.

While reviewing the incident and his footage, an investigator asked Knock why he wasn’t fighting back. When he told the officer that he didn’t think fighting would make any difference, he was told, “You are with USP now; you better learn something. “Knock said he would learn at some point that jumping was the result of blackmail attempts. However, the instant jumping sparked a rumor that Knock had faced a crime related to pedophilia. It would be weeks before he got his name clear with an article from The New Yorker mentioning his case.

Incidents like the attack were the norm in prison. He remembered a young prisoner dying in front of his eyes after being stabbed in the heart with an ice pick just four months after his release. “It was just the saddest thing,” he recalled.

In addition to the violence, Knock was taken into custody where he had to report to an officer every two hours. He said the conditions were placed on him because he could fly helicopters and was therefore classified as an escape risk.

Things only got worse when he was transferred to USP Beaumont in Texas, which has been named as one of the most violent and drug-addicted prisons in the US system. “There were stab wounds at least every other day, maybe a blow every other day, maybe twice a week,” Knock explained.

While he cherished the hope that grace would come during the Obama administration, the opportunity never materialized.

In 2008 he was transferred to USP Allenwood, Pennsylvania. At that time, Knock’s older sister, Beth Curtis, took responsibility for his release. She began researching the ordeal of nonviolent cannabis offenders like her brother. She discovered dozens of cases and launched Life For Pot, an advocacy group for non-violent cannabis offenders.

Knock credits his sister for keeping him and his pursuit of freedom alive. “If it weren’t for her, I would still be there,” he said.

Efforts by Beth and other stakeholders ultimately led to John’s grace as part of the final commutation of former President Trump in January 2021. Today Knock lives again with a family he has not been with since 1994.

Learning modern technology is a hurdle. Since he made himself known to the family again, he has not been there for almost 30 years.

The family has helped him transition better than others in the system. “I am so lucky to have a family that will surround and take care of me,” said Knock.

While many ex-lifters want to enter the legal cannabis market, Knock is focused on his family and his wife’s 75-pound Labrador, Bella. “All I want to think about is hug my ex-wife, pet the dog, and say thank you to the people who helped – that’s it.”

Still, Knock is pinning his hopes on politicians like Vice President Kamala Harris, who helped clear cannabis records. While Knock is free and greatly appreciates his converted penalty, he is not free from his penalty. He still lives with the burden of billions of dollars in fines and forfeiture.

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