SINCE HE WAS BORN, 35-year-old Tyler J Markwart has struggled to eat: he has liver and digestive-tract disorders that cause him severe nausea and intestinal pain. When he was a teenager, Markwart discovered that marijuana could alleviate these symptoms, easing his discomfort and boosting his appetite. The drug, whose recreational usage is illegal in most of the United States, became a life-altering medicine for him.
But that medicine also got Markwart into trouble. Over a phone interview in November, he told me, “In 2010, I was the first person in Washington State to receive a business licence to operate a medical-marijuana dispensary, and so that kind of put me as a target of the law-enforcement community at the time.” Though it was legal for him to grow cannabis in Washington, he could only sell it to patients who demonstrated, with documentation, that they required the drug for medicinal purposes. In April of 2011, Markwart was caught selling it to non-patients, who ended up being undercover police officers. He was convicted of three felonies—two counts of drug distribution and one count of drug manufacturing—and sentenced to eight years in prison. But he was released after less than two months, because, due to his disorders, he could not digest the food served in prison. He had lost 12 kilograms in just 52 days, he told me, and had he remained incarcerated any longer, he would have died.
Markwart is currently on probation, and, to complete his sentence, must pay off a $5,000 fine, which increases by 12 percent each year. “Because I am indigent, I can only afford to pay $100 a month, and so I rack up money each month,” he said. Even after he pays off the sum, Markwart will continue to face consequences for his felonies. He will never, for example, be able to legally own a firearm or live in certain types of government-sponsored housing.