80 Years in Prison for Minor Marijuana Possession
Editor’s Note: This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which went into effect on October 1, 1937. To mark four decades of cannabis prohibition, Leafly is reposting Dan Glick’s feature on Moses Baca and Samuel Caldwell, the first two Americans arrested in the federal government’s eight-decade war on cannabis. Dan’s article was originally published by Leafly in December, 2016.
The first thing you notice about the mug shot of Samuel R. Caldwell is that the man is wearing overalls. The balding, middle-aged Caldwell’s brow is furrowed, his lips tightly pursed. “Colo State Pen 18699” hangs around his neck, snug to the top of his tightly cinched denim shoulder straps. His eyes stare defiantly into the prison photographer’s lens, just shy of seething. A few years after the photo was taken, the serially incarcerated Caldwell would be picked up by police at a Denver flophouse and sent to federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. There he served four years for an act that had become a federal crime just a few days before his arrest on October 5, 1937: selling marijuana.
In the decades since, Caldwell has become an unlikely poster child for cannabis legalization advocates. His mug shot adorns t-shirts, posters, and coffee cups canonizing Caldwell as “The First Pot POW.” Although Caldwell was undeniably early collateral damage in America’s war on drugs, his story isn’t a straightforward march to marijuana sainthood. In fact, it’s quite messy.
Sam Caldwell has long been enshrined as the iconic ‘first pot POW.’ But in fact he was not the first.
A laborer with an 8th grade education and a lengthy rap sheet, Caldwell was hardly the innocent farmer that his overalls might suggest. He was, in the words of one of his prison evaluations, a “career criminal” and former bootlegger who owned more than just the four pounds of cannabis found in his Lothrop Hotel room on Denver’s Laurence Street. Caldwell also possessed a comically bad sense of timing. According to one of his friends, the 57-year-old Caldwell had only begun selling marijuana a few months before the new federal law kicked in. It was a pure financial play—he never smoked the stuff. Four years earlier, in January 1933, federal agents arrested Caldwell for selling a gallon of contraband whiskey for $5—less than a year before the 21st Amendment overturned Prohibition. Caldwell’s first tour in Leavenworth was for peddling white lightning, not Panama Red.
This much is true: Sam Caldwell was one of the earliest targets of the 1937 Marihuana Stamp Act. But in point of fact, he was not the first.
Moses Baca’s marijuana arrest, two days before Caldwell’s in a different Denver neighborhood, should have earned him the top spot in the Cannabis Hall of Fame. In Baca’s only known criminal justice shot, the 23-year-old looks a little like a Mexican-American version of Prince, with a shock of unruly hair, a few wisps of mustache, full unparted lips and a thousand-mile stare. A Colorado State Reformatory number, 8755, sits on his right breast, and he’s sporting a striped shirt under a ratty sport coat.
Despite the fact that the new federal law had been aimed at “peddlers” rather than users, Baca’s crime was to possess a mere quarter ounce of the evil weed. Police found it in a bureau drawer in his third-floor rooming house on California Street in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood as they were arresting him on a “Drunk & Disturbance” charge.
As the folk hero status of Caldwell and Baca grew with the cannabis reform movement, the two began being erroneously linked as buyer and seller of those first federal joints. Facts, as they say, should never get in the way of a good story.
Moses Baca was arrested two days before Caldwell, at 3am on a Sunday morning in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.
Like Caldwell, Baca is an unlikely hero of the weed wars, with an even longer rap sheet and an ugly propensity to beat his wife. As a man of Mexican heritage (he was born in southern Colorado), Baca fit the profile of the kind of person legislators were targeting when Congress passed the first federal marijuana law. Still, he got off easier than Caldwell on his marijuana charge: Baca served less than 18 months, also in Leavenworth.
The all-too obvious irony of these men’s stories, gleefully seized upon by the modern cannabis reform movement, is that both jailbirds were popped for pot in the same state that would be the first in the Union to legalize it, 76 years later. Today any adult visiting Colorado can do with impunity what, in a less urbane form, sent Caldwell and Baca to federal prison: purchase some Sour Diesel and pleasurably imbibe.
Much as I wish it were so, I can’t claim to be the sleuth who uncovered the full truth about Caldwell and Baca. That title falls upon a 48-year-old drug felon and autodidactic cannabis historian who goes by the pen name “Uncle Mike.” It was he who spent years digging through documents and posting them on an obscure website—www.UncleMikesResearch.com—and it was he who earned nothing from his efforts but a visit from a nosy reporter.
I read the Caldwell-and-Baca stories a few years ago, when Colorado’s first retail stores opened and the Denver Post put them back on the front page. But then I kept catching glances of Caldwell, in all his slick-pated glory, here and there as the legalization movement continued to expand across America. And it made me wonder: What’s that dude’s story?
The sleuth who uncovered the truth about Baca and Caldwell is a self-taught historian and proud cannabis felon.
Which, of course, led me to Uncle Mike.
It took me many tries to reach him. Uncle Mike is not a publicity hound. When he finally returned my messages he was wary. So many journalists had screwed up Caldwell and Baca’s story that he was reluctant to do anything at first besides point me to his own research. At the University of Colorado law library, I perused a copy of his book, “U.S. District Court, Denver, Colorado, Imposes First Federal Marihuana Law Penalties: Compilation of Publications, Interviews, Criminal Files and Photographs of Moses Baca & Samuel Caldwell,” © 2008.
Despite the unwieldy title, the book proved to be a treasure chest of material. I was gobsmacked by the primary documents Uncle Mike had obtained: microfiche copies of arrest records, court documents, newspaper clippings, handwritten interview notes, Congressional testimony, even the address of the Denver Victorian where Moses Baca had been living when he was arrested. After a series of emails, Facebook messages, and guarded phone conversations, Uncle Mike finally agreed to guide me through the morass of half-truths, mistaken identity, and fuzzy storytelling emerging from both sides of the marijuana divide. But only over the phone. There would be no face-to-face meeting. At least not for now.
Uncle Mike calls himself “just a redneck from Craig,” a rural Colorado town more well known for being a hardscrabble coal community than it is for breeding cannabis activists. After a lifetime living in the underground, he still isn’t comfortable using his real name. He lives in a state that legalized the source of his paranoia four years ago, but legality hasn’t swept away the suspicion. He remembers when he was first gathering signatures for a Colorado hemp initiative in the late 1990s, “I couldn’t get potheads to sign, dude,” he told me. “They all thought that narcs would get the list.” Old habits die hard.
Uncle Mike was born in 1968 and found his way into political activism the hard way: in handcuffs. A hometown bust for “pot and acid” gave him a taste of prison. “It’s a pre-requisite for being a hardcore activist,” he told me. “After experiencing the system, you’re really pissed off.” He did his time and eventually came to see his arrest as a badge of honor shared with many other reformers; a victim, like Caldwell and Baca, of being born in the wrong era.