I am Ron Ridenour, a 55-year-old Flathead County and Canyon resident of Montana. I stood before a federal judge on June 25th, 2004, the most critical reckoning day I had encountered in my lifetime. In order to reduce a 5 to 20 year prison term and a two million dollar fine to livable amounts, I was advised to plead guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. My prison term was 23 months in addition to the seizure of nearly half a million dollars by the Whitefish Police Department and the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force. Seized items included my home, a collection of automobiles, a motorcycle, a ski boat, and some firearms. To initiate my arrest, a girlfriend with momentary objections to our personal situation dialed 911, and I walked away from the life I knew in handcuffs. The purchase of this property was made possible because of 35 years of employment in the railroad industry, construction trades, employment within my family's business, and legitimate entrepreneurial endeavors. The money made from sales of marijuana paled by comparison, but task force warriors rushed to seize nearly all assets of value.

Regarding marijuana, I humbly appeal to all who judged me then and judge other people and me now to consider what I have learned through personal inquiry, observation, and experience:

Cannabis sativa/marijuana/pot/hemp originated early in the history of the world. It was a product of evolution, intelligent design, or a compilation of both. The plant has existed and has been utilized by people and cultures for a long time. The oldest piece of fabric known to man was made from hemp -- cannabis sativa -- and dates to 8,000 years before Christ.

At some point early in the history of man or his predecessors, the plant was discovered for its mood-altering and medicinal effects. Ancient China and India provide the earliest records of its use. At the turn of the 20th century, as many as two thirds of the world's cultures used marijuana for pain relief and its euphoric qualities.

In 1937, the U.S. legislated marijuana illegal with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act. Although doctors had been prescribing cannabis for a hundred years, the bill was rushed through Congress with no testimony by the American Medical Association. A clique of wealthy individuals and corporations employing and controlling the influence of newspaper and banking interests along with friends and relatives at high levels of government were able to manipulate views of the American public. This scheming would reap billions in personal and corporate income for the parties involved because there would be no competition from the hemp plant.

When I was in my teens and going to school in Columbia Falls, alcohol was, as it still is today, the drug of choice for the community; it was only natural that consumption would find its way into the social scene of the youth. Binge drinking has probably been inherent with alcohol use since fermentation was discovered. My first contact with marijuana occurred when I was 18. Older friends returning from Vietnam brought their observations of war, and they told me about the enjoyable and relaxing effects of marijuana. Some brought samples smuggled in their duty-free stereos. We were compatriots in life and another taboo. I tried the stuff and I liked it. It didn't make me ill, I wasn't obnoxious when using it, and my friends and I weren't drunkenly racing our cars and forgetting what we had done on a previous evening.

Throughout history, warriors have been returning to their homelands with different ideas . . . and plunder. The introduction of cannabis to western civilization is believed to have occurred when Napoleon's troops invaded Egypt. This is the way of people. This is the way of the world.

The primary argument for marijuana's illegal status is the belief that it provides a gateway to more harmful drugs. It is a gateway. Alcohol and tobacco are also gateways and have killed millions of people. Which gateways are most harmful and which are less harmful? And, if in living, we walk through a gate into a dangerous situation but can find our way back to the relative safety of the gate -- are we always to be condemned?

Lurking in a dark area well beyond this "gate" is a frightfully addictive drug called methamphetamine. If the increasing use of meth, a poison made from poisons, could be reduced by offering de-criminalized, and in this light, medical use of marijuana, wouldn't we benefit from the experiment? If the hemp plant could help our society decrease its dependence on foreign oil and forests of timber while providing farmers a durable, fast-growing, drought-resistant crop and offering industry a widely useable product, wouldn't we benefit from the experiment?

The reason most people move from alcohol to marijuana is because an herb gives them a safer and more interesting experience than booze. Marijuana doesn't put its user over a toilet in the morning vomiting their guts out with a headache. Most people find marijuana more pleasurable than alcohol and easier on their lives. While under the influence of marijuana, an individual rarely loses control of his or her actions, or becomes obnoxious, mean, or violent. These undesirable behaviors are common with the consumption of alcohol or methamphetamine. The reason people move from alcohol or marijuana to methamphetamine is because meth has more kick than either and is more readily accessible; it can be made from easily obtainable ingredients in the basement. But the methamphetamine users I interviewed while incarcerated with them said a big reason for their use of meth is because a product they prefer -- marijuana -- is illegal. Many people who try meth would be delighted if they could legally return to the relative safety of marijuana use. The reason the government of the United States continues to wage a war on marijuana is shrouded in hypocrisy, deception, and lies.

Study the issue. A good place to start is a book by Jack Herrer called The Emperor Wears No Clothes. It tells the tragic story of how a few greedy, self-serving individuals managed to outlaw a plant that threatened their foreseeable wealth and their personal "moral values." A plant that had been prescribed by doctors for years and utilized by our nation and the world for paper, fabric, and food was demonized. William Randolph Hearst ran the smear with yellow journalism in his newspapers. The Dupont Corporation discovered how to make a resilient plastic fiber and fabric with petroleum. Until then, the country and military were reliant upon hemp for durable rope and fabric. The oil-based process was patented and called nylon.

A combined effort of several key players organized the blacklisting and outlawing of marijuana and hemp. There was Hearst's media smear along with the racially motivated ranting of Harry Anslinger, basically our nation's first drug czar. Anslinger had been appointed to head the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs by Andrew Mellon. Mellon was Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury, and the Mellon Bank was the banking choice for the Dupont family. This self-serving pack of opportunists presented their information to Congress and convinced the government to outlaw marijuana and hemp. They all profited immensely.

Another illuminating book about marijuana and its effects was the result of a study commissioned by Richard Nixon and his administration. They got a bunch of scientists and doctors together to realistically analyze the entire spectrum of information and fact surrounding the marijuana issue that had emerged in the 60s. The book from this study is Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding, likely the most comprehensive study of the plant and its effects in history. The 1972 report summarized: "The evils of marihuana," they spelled it with the harsher h, "are the result of 30 years of instilled fear," and that the plant was "incorrectly classified as a narcotic and should have fallen into the same category as alcohol and tobacco." One simple but poignant comment from the study said a reason for people to experiment with drugs is because America's social system "no longer inspires in people a feeling of purpose and meaningfulness." They concluded that the plant was not a significant problem and that the government should consider regulating the product like alcohol and re-evaluate the process of criminalizing people and destroying lives because of its use. Nixon and his group didn't like what they heard, and the study never saw the light of day. A follow-up report was also overlooked. Americans certainly weren't going to vote for a politician promoting decriminalization of a drug, and the tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical interests wouldn't be donating to political war chests if their incomes were challenged.

Richard Nixon got caught because of his Watergate burglars and resigned. Jimmy Carter was elected. When the idea of decriminalizing marijuana came before Carter's administration, the fear-based hysteria prevailed. They realized the situation was out of control but couldn't be seen as "soft" on drugs. The economy was driven into failure and America elected an optimistic actor. Incarceration was Ronald Reagan's answer, and he ushered in the seizure of assets for drug offenders and the process of sentencing guidelines resulting in rampant prison growth. CIA-spawned George Bush wasn't soft on drugs either. With his zero tolerance policy, asset seizure and prison population growth continued. Bill Clinton had smoked but he didn't inhale. Bill couldn't be soft either, and an affair with an intern diminished whatever chance he might have had for addressing the smearing and blacklisting of marijuana and its users.

Prison construction -- five to six federal joints a year, along with countless state and local holds -- prevailed every year throughout the 90s. Locking people up was providing America's most significant growth in jobs and revenue. George Bush Junior beat Al Gore with a Supreme Court ruling, and four years later he beat John Kerry with a mandate. The raging smear against marijuana and drugs goes on. Junior sent soldiers into harm's way to counter terrorism and secure America's supply of sweet crude oil. This unfortunate phenomenon might not have come upon the world and our country if we had been growing the hemp plant and deriving a significant amount of our needs -- food, fabric, oil, fuel, and biomass -- from hemp.

The Declaration of Independence is written on paper made from hemp. George Washington advised farmers to grow the plant. He and Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and their perceptive cohorts might have taken some puffs from the mentally stimulating herb while contemplating a Declaration, Bill of Rights, and Constitution for a great nation. Wouldn't that have been a hoot?

As dismal as moneyed interests and their bought-off politicians are who have written the law, America is sprouting little seeds of hope. More and more states are voting for medical marijuana privileges. Cities are voting to allow medical use, to decriminalize, or reduce marijuana regulation to a lowest priority.

Even some law enforcement officers realize America's prohibition on drugs is a failed policy. One such group is called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The following is an excerpt from their web site:

After nearly four decades of fueling the U.S. policy of a war on drugs with over half-a-trillion tax dollars and increasingly punitive policies, our prisoner population has quadrupled over a 20 year period making building prisons this nation's fastest growing industry. More than 2.2 million citizens are currently incarcerated and every year we arrest an additional 1.6 million for nonviolent drug offenses -- more per capita than any country in the world. The United States has 4.6 percent of the population of the world but 22.5 percent of the world's prisoners. Every year we choose to continue this war will cost U.S. taxpayers another 69 billion dollars. Despite all the lives we have destroyed and all the money so ill spent, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier to get than they were 35 years ago at the beginning of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, people continue dying in our streets while drug barons and terrorists continue to grow richer than ever before. We would suggest that this scenario must be the very definition of a failed public policy. This madness must cease!

Inform yourself. Watch a TV show called Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way, which aired on the History Channel and discusses the reasons drugs were made illegal. Read The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herrer and Marihuana, A Signal of Misunderstanding, a government study funded by your taxes. The latter is out of print but copies can be found. Read Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum, and America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs by Steven B. Duke and Albert C. Gross. Go online. The address for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is www.leap.cc. Discover why an ever-growing number of lawmen and judges are realizing prohibition has failed America once again. Truth about America's involvement with drugs is available. Law enforcement personnel and judges, prosecutors, voters, and the public at large need to know it.

My analysis of this information prior to my arrest caused me to think a sense of understanding and decreased urgency concerning marijuana was beginning to prevail in our society, and consequently, in the courts and the minds of jurors. Even Montana's conservative legislature had voted 40 percent for allowing medical use of marijuana. While I was incarcerated, an initiative referendum to allow medical use was passed when this measure was placed before the voters of Montana, and an argument can be made that a large percentage of marijuana use is medical in nature. Mine was -- pain reduction and relief from stress and depression. Some of my customers were cancer patients. They got good deals on their choice for medicine from me.

I broke the law and was arrested. I knew I risked imprisonment and financial loss if caught selling marijuana. I sold only to adults and advised my group of customers to do the same. I didn't think my entire life's income would be at stake, and had I known this would occur, I would not have taken the risk. Because I disobeyed the law of this land, I've had to accept the seizure of my possessions and serve my allotted time in prison.

I apologize to my family, friends, and community for the pain, embarrassment, or monetary loss caused by my actions. I hope I can be a valuable contributor to our country's beneficial existence, and I think saving 70 billion a year on the drug war would be a good start. Ceasing to destroy the lives of those arrested would be a good start.

It is beyond time for America to critically analyze the costs associated with the drug war. A U.S. Department of Justice/Bureau of Justice Statistics webpage titled "Direct Expenditures by Criminal Justice Function, 1982-2001" lists the amounts of money the government spent to cover judicial, police, and corrections costs between 1982 and 2001. Police expenses went from 19 million to 72.5 million per year, judicial costs rose from 7.7 million to 37.5 million, and the cost of corrections jumped from 9 million to almost 57 million. The total amount spent for these three departments between 1982 and 2001 was 1.846 trillion dollars. It is common knowledge that the primary reason for this increase was a result of the drug war. Extrapolating these figures into the future to the year 2025, hoping that the costs only increase at the rates they did between 1982 and 2001 -- 3.78 percent for police, 4.84 percent for judicial costs, and 6.3 percent for corrections -- reveals even more unbelievable amounts of money. The 2001 figure of 72.5 million spent for police times 24 years times the 3.78 percent rate of increase totals 6.57 trillion to be spent between 2002 and 2025; the 2001 37.57 million spent for judicial purposes multiplied by 24 and then by 4.84 adds up to 4.364 trillion; and 56.95 million dedicated to corrections in 2001 will grow by another 8.61 trillion between 2002 and 2025. Add these three figures up, and one comes up with a whopping 19.545 trillion to be spent arresting, trying, and incarcerating America's citizens between 2002 and 2025. And that's if there is no exponential increase exceeding what occurred between 1982 and 2001.

These figures represent amounts the U.S. will spend to provide justice for all offenders -- murderers, child molesters, corporate raiders, thieves, drug users, drug dealers, etc. What percentage of these people will have been influenced directly or indirectly by the use or sale of drugs? Educated guesses range from 40 to 60 percent, depending on which professional you ask. Drug offenders surpassed violent offenders in 1990. If 40 to 60 percent of crime is either directly or indirectly related to drugs, America will be spending between 7.8 and 11.7 trillion to arrest, judge, and incarcerate drug offenders between 2002 and 2025.

One million, 678 thousand, and one hundred ninety two people were arrested in America in 2003 for drugs. I was one. It won't be long before this nation will have fought and lost a hundred year war against drugs. As a result of our government's aggressive campaign to control the lives of its citizens, we have the fastest growing imprisonment rate in the world. In the last five years, we have arrested 9 million people for nonviolent drug offenses -- far more per capita than any country in the world. The people of this country, financially and morally, cannot afford the fight. And if America wants its problem with methamphetamine to decline, it will have to allow its citizens something more than alcohol to stimulate their lives. If allowing adults access to marijuana reduced this country's methamphetamine habit, significantly reduced our prison population, and provided farmers a plant that could lessen the nation's demand on petroleum and wood products, wouldn't our society benefit from the experiment?

Can America continue to support this war? Can all of the broken lives be justified? Is there a better path for the "land of the free"?

Legalize marijuana. Let folks have their pot. Regulate and tax it like alcohol and cigarettes. Demand responsible use and see what happens. The experiment couldn't be worse than where we are or where we're headed. It's time to call a truce in America's longest war -- the war against the people -- the drug war; and it's time to allow some amnesty for its millions of casualties.