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  
     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  
     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  
     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.  
     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.  
     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  
     "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:  
     The News Herald, Sunday, September 4, 1994, Page 1E.