Brooke Popplewell remembers every detail of the day she met Humberto Ramirez, her devoted partner of 16 years. She was at home watching the Lifetime Channel, wearing her Sunday lounge clothes, when a friend invited her on a mundane errand. The friend was heading over to her cousin Humberto's house to braid his hair; did Brooke want to come?
"I walked in and I was like, 'oh my god.' He was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," Popplewell recalls. "I thought I'd marry him someday. I never left his side after that."
The two built a life together, bought a house, and had a daughter named Lily-Anna, who is now 14. But everything changed on Nov. 16, 2020, when Ramirez was sentenced to seven years in prison on a cannabis charge. Neither Popplewell nor their daughter has been allowed to see him since.
A Thriving Industry, a Family Torn Apart
Just 13 days before his sentencing, voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in New Jersey, where Ramirez is now an inmate at South Woods State Prison. Soon, New Jerseyans will be able to buy THC products legally at high-end dispensaries, but a devoted partner and father languishes alone in jail for intent to distribute marijuana.
In the U.S., the legal cannabis industry is expected to generate around $40 billion in annual revenue by 2025. Meanwhile, Popplewell is forced to spend $80 a week for the privilege of talking to her partner on the phone.
Popplewell sought help from House of Wise's nonprofit partner, Last Prisoner Project, which is committed to drug policy reform and freeing the estimated 40,000 prisoners incarcerated for cannabis in the U.S. While celebrities like Seth Rogen and Martha Stewart are marketing marijuana products, former and current nonviolent offenders are still suffering from our nation's decades-long War on Drugs.
Although white people are just as likely to consume marijuana as their non-white peers, the criminalization of cannabis has disproportionately affected people of color. In fact, the very prohibition of marijuana in the United States has racist origins, and "the vast majority of modern marijuana enforcement activity has been directed at Black and Latinx communities," according to a 2020 Last Prisoner Project report entitled "Criminal Injustice: Cannabis & the Rise of the Carceral State."
Read more >> Life After a Cannabis Conviction: Stephanie Shepard
Last Prisoner Project is fighting for clemency on behalf of Ramirez and others like him. As New Jersey rolls out its adult recreational-use cannabis market in 2022, the nonprofit submitted a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy urging him to grant categorical clemency to all cannabis offenders who are currently incarcerated in New Jersey state prisons. (Take action by adding your name to the clemency petition.)
A Void Left Behind by Incarceration
Nothing about Popplewell's life has been easy since Ramirez was locked up. She has to pause to fight back tears when she talks about what a wonderful father and fiancé Ramirez is. (Though Ramirez's future is still uncertain, the couple plans to marry in December.) He supported Popplewell while she fulfilled her dream of going to nursing school, but without Ramirez's income to help support the family, she now works 55 hours a week, putting in five days of work as a urology nurse and picking up extra hours on weekends.
Like any true partner, Ramirez's contribution to family life went far beyond mere income. He handled a lot of the cooking ("he's a better cook than me," Popplewell says) and parenting duties for 14-year-old Lily, who likes dancing and gymnastics. Now, Last Prisoner Project is helping to pay for Lily's dance classes.
"Bert was the only dad in the dance carpool," she recalls. "Every day, he would get Lily off the bus and take her to the park to practice her flipping."
Popplewell often played the enforcer role in the relationship, though she has stepped up as more of a nurturer to fill the void Ramirez left. "She's an excellent child," Popplewell says. "We tried so hard not to make her have to get tough. We always said she was going to be our greatest accomplishment."
Before meeting Popplewell, Ramirez had two other daughters, who were 8 and 4 when the couple met and who are now 24 and 20. "He let me know right away that he came with two little girls," Popplewell says. "He never knew his father, so to be a father was very important to him."
But since going into custody in November 2020, Ramirez hasn't been able to see any of his family; being incarcerated during the coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible.
Popplewell says she hopes to be allowed to visit him in May, but neither she nor Ramirez has received a concrete date, despite him following all the Covid protocols. "He did everything that was asked of him," Popplewell says. "He was vaccinated, and he received the booster."
Ramirez was originally placed in county jail; at the time, prisoners had to quarantine for 14 days, without any outdoors or telephone privileges. On day seven of his isolation, Ramirez was found unconscious on the floor due to dehydration, a fact that Popplewell only learned because Ramirez was rushed to the hospital where she works as a nurse.
Since then, Popplewell has been taking Zoloft to cope. "I like to stress that, because never in my life have I taken any medicine," she says. "I've never taken a pill in my life."
A Harsh Sentence With a Far Reach
Popplewell always knew that her husband smoked marijuana, but she didn't care. "I have no problem with him smoking marijuana," she says. "I personally don't smoke marijuana, but he's not a drinker. I knew Bert sold pot to his friends and family, but it was never paid for anything but his leisure."
Cannabis was Ramirez's preferred form of relief, and selling it to friends and family helped him fund that activity. But the last time he went to make a purchase was the night he was pulled over.
"Berto had made our daughter's favorite dinner, and I started washing dishes," Popplewell said. "He said 'I'm going to take a ride to Vineland.' About an hour and a half later, he called me and said he'd gotten pulled over. I said, 'that's OK, it'll be fine.' He said, 'it's not going to be fine.'"
At the time Ramirez was pulled over for speeding, he had enough marijuana in his car to be charged with second-degree possession with intent to distribute. Ramirez had been arrested twice before, when he was 18 and 21, on nonviolent cannabis charges. Despite maintaining a spotless record for nearly 25 years, when he went back in front of a judge at age 45, the state handed down a harsh sentence.
Read more >> Liberty After a Cannabis Conviction: Evelyn's Story
"I believe that every poor decision deserves a repercussion," says Popplewell. "But I don't think a nonviolent cannabis offender should go to prison."
Rather than allowing Ramirez to continue to work and contribute to society, "society sent him away, and I'm stuck with everything," Popplewell says. "You're punishing me and my daughter more than anyone else. It's just not right."
About Last Prisoner Project
Last Prisoner Project works to free people who are incarcerated for cannabis and also donates money to the families of those affected by their incarceration. If you'd like to help support Ramirez, Popplewell, and many other families like them, donate to Last Prisoner Project. House of Wise donates a portion of all its profits to Last Prisoner Project's Family Support Fund.