THE GANJA MAN
Brent Unger The News Herald
James Tranmer would gladly die for marijuana. He's offered to go smiling to the gallows, throw the noose around his own neck, then pull the lever. He'd prefer that the rope be made of hemp, but it's not a demand. The U.S. government has not taken him up on his offer. Instead -- as a consolation prize of sorts -- the government has given him 35 years in a federal prison. A sentence tantamount to life for the 50-year-old Tranmer. A gothic drama of changing times and values, the story of James Tranmer reveals a great deal about the government's "War on Drugs," and our society as a whole. If you listen to Tranmer, he's being persecuted for his religious belief in a plant that's fallen out of political favor. A euphoric, spiritual herb that's a part of creation and completely harmless. If you listen to the government, Tranmer is being punished for conspiracy to import into Panama City thousands of pounds of marijuana -- a pernicious, addling Schedule I drug. A drug with no redeeming qualities and a vast potential for abuse. According to the government, Tranmer is just another drug dealer. But even hardened courtroom regulars admit that there's something different about Tranmer. Most people brought into court on drug charges vehemently deny any association with drugs, says Johnny Johnson, Bay County liaison for the U.S. Marshals. And never, he says, do they sing a drug's praises -- which is exactly what Tranmer did. "In a way," Johnson admits, "you gotta respect the guy." Tranmer's lawyer refused to put him on the stand during the trial. But at his July sentencing in Panama City's federal courthouse, Tranmer spoke his piece, praising marijuana -- over and over and over. "I'm an herb man. I've always been an herb man," Tranmer said in part. "You cannot win this fight against marijuana. If you fight against the herb, you fight against creation." The judge was having none of it. "By the look on the judge's face," Tranmer says, "I knew it was boring him -- I knew it didn't really make any difference. But, you know, I did say what I felt." Soon after Tranmer gave his impassioned speech, a pelican crashed into a power line outside the courthouse, dying in a huge fireball. The courthouse went dark. Friends of Tranmer took the pelican's death as a good sign - - a sign that even if the judge wasn't listening, maybe somebody, somewhere was. At it's core, the story of James Tranmer revolves around a hardy weed that grows wild in all 50 states. An herb that continues to inspire debate like no other "drug." Supporters tout marijuana as a spiritual herb with near- magical powers and a host of medical and societal uses. Opponents decry it as a mind-erasing gateway to more drugs and to increasing irresponsible behavior. Both sides admit it is addling, but disagree wildly whether or not this is good. Marijuana's "high" is difficult to measure, but its other effects, when examined objectively, seem rather benign. The entry under marijuana in the 1992 edition of the MERCK Manual reads, in part: "Although many dangers of marijuana are frequently cited, there is still little evidence of biologic damage, even among relatively heavy users. This is true even in the areas intensely investigated, such as immunologic and reproductive function." The MERCK Manual, used by medical personnel nationwide, is the definitive guide on substances' effects on people. No person in the 5,000-year history of marijuana use has ever died from the herb, and it is one of the few "drugs" for which there is no known fatal dose. It has been estimated that in order to ingest a lethal dose of marijuana, a person would have to smoke 100 pounds of the stuff every minute for 15 minutes. "I'd like to be the first to try that," Tranmer says, laughing. "What a great way to go." Tranmer first laid eyes on marijuana in 1965. He promptly smoked it. "I realized immediately that there was something to the marijuana," he says. "I realized everybody had lied to me. Realized that this was not the demonic thing that everybody claimed it was. It was a wonderful sensation, a wonderful feeling. The rapport and the camaraderie among the people was very different than anything I ever experienced before. I still didn't really understand or comprehend anything about it, but I knew I was going to be smoking marijuana for quite some time." So began a fierce devotion. A devotion that's led Tranmer on a most unlikely journey. After 1965, Tranmer traveled the world looking for good ganja. Then, in 1970 he smoked some Jamaican stuff -- and it was off to Jamaica. He lived there on and off throughout the 70s, becoming a priest in the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church and growing to appreciate the true spiritual nature of the magical herb. While there, he was interviewed by 60 Minutes' Dan Rather. In the late 1970s, a little known Miami-area prosecutor named Janet Reno battled Tranmer and the Coptics in court over their claimed religious right to smoke ganja. The Coptics lost, Reno won. Through it all, Tranmer smoked. Thousands and thousands of times. He is a ganja man, and his record reflects this: over 20 marijuana arrests. For his latest offense, he will probably die in jail. He wouldn't change a thing. "I'm overjoyed," he says. Johnny Johnson admits that Tranmer seems intelligent, but fears the man is sadly misled. Tranmer insists he's not. His salvation, he says, revolves around doing what he knows to be right. His salvation revolves around marijuana, his sacrament, his personal window to the spirit of God. "The more they persecute me wrongfully," he says, "the better off I am." Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal government. In other words, it has a high potential for abuse, no approved medical uses and no safe dose. Cocaine and PCP, on the other hand, are classified as Schedule II, and can be prescribed by doctors. Thanks to machinery put in place by Ronald Reagan, the same legal tools associated with drugs like cocaine are being brought to bear on marijuana and marijuana users: broad search-and- seizure powers, civil forfeiture laws, expanded application of conspiracy laws. The list is long. You almost have to be stoned, Tranmer says, to comprehend the awesome size of the umbrella called "conspiracy." Tranmer is reluctant to discuss the merits of his case, but there are others that are illustrative. Consider, for example, the case of Mark Young, now serving a life sentence in federal prison for "conspiracy to manufacture" marijuana. He simply introduced a marijuana buyer to a marijuana seller/manufacturer. According to federal records, roughly one in six inmates in the federal prison system has been prosecuted primarily for a marijuana offense. About 15,000 people -- a number that now includes Tranmer. It wasn't always that way. Thanks largely to an increase in popularity among the white middle class, marijuana use was widely tolerated in the 1960s and 1970s on both the state and federal levels. During the 1970s, 11 states decriminalized marijuana, and many other states relaxed their laws. The Shafer Commission -- appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 to study the marijuana question -- advocated federal de-criminalization of marijuana for personal use. During his presidency, Jimmy Carter came out for this de facto legalization. In 1977, the DEA said it was a viable policy option. But when Reagan came to office in 1980 and began his ballyhooed "War on Drugs," marijuana suddenly and mysteriously became a scourge on the national character. States gradually tightened their laws. Federal laws became more and more stringent.
IT'S COMPLICATED With more than 60 unique components, many of which are addling, the gummy yellow resin secreted by the marijuana plant is complicated. And perhaps the same could be said of James Tranmer. He is a terribly difficult man to describe. An interesting, intelligent, contradictory man, Tranmer does not fit easily into any simple classification. He regularly sings in jail and laughs with visitors about how society is unraveling. He is surprisingly upbeat at the prospect of facing 35 years -- and probably death -- in prison. This, despite his assertion: "I know I'm not a criminal. And I know I've never hurt anybody." Nicknamed "Judge" by his prison inmates, he will not let them lapse into immorality in his presence. He is an optimist, yet he holds out little hope that he'll be free again. He wants to be the first person executed for ganja, but admits the world would little notice.
UNFAIR FIGHT Both sides of the marijuana debate agree that thousands of lives have been ruined, but disagree as to the culprit: marijuana or the laws that forbid its use. But, in a way, it is not a fair fight. Marijuana opponents, after all, are far better organized and better financed than marijuana supporters. Bay County's foremost marijuana advocate outside of Tranmer is Robert Lawrence -- a subsistence farmer and sometimes musician living in virtual exile in the dusty hamlet of Fountain. "He is a simple man," Tranmer says, "but full of wisdom." Lawrence says that a lot of people agree with him. "But if all the rich and famous people in Bay County came out and said the laws are wrong, they'd lose their jobs and end up poor hippies like us." The marijuana opponents, after all, include the federal government. There is a huge bureaucracy backing the status quo. And there are prison sentences. Most of Tranmer's "brothers and sisters" are either in jail or so battered and beaten up by years of evading the law that they've all but given up the struggle. The government insists it's right. Tranmer does the same. But, in the final analysis, there is no question that proposing the legalization of marijuana is political poison. And no question that legalization is a long shot. James Tranmer doesn't care. He knows he's right. And he's sticking to it. Damn the government. "People hate to hear the truth," he says. "They hate the spirit person. And they hate the ganja man. That's why they must persecute me." Tranmer is now being transferred from Panama City's downtown jail to a federal prison in Lewisburg, Penn. But one suspects that wherever he goes, he will continue his devotion to marijuana. Wherever he goes, he will ask to be hanged for his beloved herb. And wherever he goes, an odd jailhouse sound will be heard: singing.
The News Herald, Sunday, September 4, 1994, Page 1E.