Kristoffer Lewandowski doesn't exactly fit the profile of a pot baron. A veteran of three tours of duty with the U.S. Marines, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Laguna Niguel resident divides his time between architecture classes at Saddleback College and helping his wife, Whitney, raise their three young sons. But thanks to a 2-year-old episode of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that occurred in Oklahoma and led to a guilty plea for growing six marijuana plants, Lewandowski now faces an Oct. 19 sentencing hearing that could land him in state prison for five years.
If that sounds like a heavy sentence for half a dozen scraggly plants, consider this: Thanks to the Sooner State's notoriously retrograde policy on cannabis—it's one of a dwindling number nationwide that offer no protections for medical use of marijuana—Lewandowski at one point was actually facing life in prison for the plants. (The local media even hyped his arrest as a "major pot bust.")
Lewandowski's problems began in Geronimo, Oklahoma, just outside Fort Sill, where he had been teaching field artillery classes until chronic pain from a back injury finally took him off active duty. The sudden transition from several years in Middle Eastern combat zones to a sedentary life in rural Oklahoma simultaneously triggered an onset of PTSD. As an artillery operations chief, Lewandowski had fired off countless shells in support of combat troops, and the psychic weight of the carnage he knew he'd wrought was coming back to haunt him. "In Afghanistan, what gets me more than anything was the acceptance of death and of taking life," he recently explained over pizza at a Lake Forest Chuck E. Cheese. He sat next to Whitney, who carried their baby, while their two older children played nearby. "It was completely acceptable. It almost would have been unacceptable not to celebrate a successful firing operation, but now to think about every one of those rounds and what they did, I have a big issue living with that."
Lewandowski signed himself up for psychological counseling, but talking about his problems didn't seem to help. One night, a friend sleeping on Lewandowski's couch watched his sleepwalking host clearing the house of imaginary intruders. Then, on June 1, 2014, he got into an argument with Whitney about the marijuana plants he was attempting to grow in the house. After she destroyed one of the plants, Lewandowski grabbed a knife and Whitney fled to a neighbor's house with her kids.
A brief standoff with police followed, and upon the discovery of the plants, sheriff's deputies charged Lewandowski with cultivating marijuana. According to Whitney, deputies told her that if she didn't press domestic-abuse charges against her husband, they'd send her to jail for the plants, too. To keep from losing custody of their children, Whitney followed their advice, but after 11 days, when child-welfare workers determined Lewandowski didn't pose a threat to his family, the couple reunited and haven't had an issue since. (Whitney says her husband has never laid a hand on her or the kids.)
Still, deputies weren't quite done with Lewandowski. "The original incident led to a couple of other incidents where I feel I was unjustly harassed," he says. Deputies arrested him for driving without a license, and later, they stopped and searched him while he was on foot, busting him for the less than a gram of cannabis in his pocket. While the family tried to raise money for a defense attorney, they received permission from the judge in his case to move to her parents' house in Irvine. A few months later, they found an apartment in Laguna Niguel.
Adjusting to civilian life in California wasn't easy, however. In January 2015, Lewandowski checked himself into the Veterans Administration's Long Beach mental ward. It was during his time there that Lewandowski first became familiar with the Weed for Warriors project, which provides free cannabis to veterans suffering from PTSD. After leaving the hospital, Lewandowski became an activist with the group in his free time, helping to promote its message on social media.
But on June 20, 2015, a team of armed federal marshals arrested Lewandowski near his home. Because he had failed to appear at a pretrial hearing in Oklahoma—Lewandowski says he wasn't aware of it—he'd officially become a fugitive. As he was picking up his son from a church-run daycare center, they tackled him to the ground in front of his family and a group of stunned parents. Lewandowski spent the next week shackled in a bus on his way to Oklahoma, a trip extended for a day when several inmates were injured when the driver slammed the brakes to punish a mouthy prisoner and had to be taken to the hospital for an examination. As soon as Lewandowski appeared in court, the judge ordered he be allowed to return to California pending trial; on July 20, 2015, after more than a month in jail, he returned to Orange County.
Sean Kiernan, president of the Weed for Warriors project, says that the group is fighting to publicize Lewandowski's case because of how outrageous it is, but it's far from unique. "The problem is this: The judicial system is broken," Kiernan says. "I see this every week. They run it like a business. They have to tell America they are tough on crime, and they don't care about right or wrong or what the just thing to do is. Kris was facing life in prison, and that's why he had to plead guilty, even if he shouldn't have."
Lewandowski made what is known as a "blind plea" in May, accepting responsibility for his actions and throwing himself on the court's mercy. "The state made it clear that I had to plead guilty [to avoid life]," he says. "But the thing is, I was using cannabis because of ailments I received in the military. I never joined the Marine Corps because I thought I would be in a situation where I could say, 'I am a veteran and shouldn't be dealing with this,' but I don't know what else to do. I don't want to go to jail for cannabis. I really don't."
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).