For Alvi and other prisoners of prohibition, The War on Drugs was simply a ‘War on Us’
New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission started accepting retail license applications Tuesday (March 15). Gov. Phil Murphy also included over $4 million projected cannabis sales in his latest state budget, leading insiders to believe NJ’s legal market could be rolling out sometime between April and May.
For most NJ residents, the adult-use market signals exciting social and financial progress for The Garden State. But for Alvi Ghaznavi and many other Americans, the War on Drugs is still causing life-altering harm.
Alvi has spent two years and counting behind bars, waiting for Gov. Murphy or President Biden to fix the contradictions that current cannabis laws pose to the victims of racist and unjustly-enforced marijuana laws of the past. While his state reviews license applications, the 27-year-old is serving at least 3 years (and possibly up to 10) for operating a “controlled dangerous substance” cannabis facility in New Jersey.
To advocate for the immediate release and expungement of all non-violent cannabis offenders, Leafly and Last Prisoner Project are sharing the stories of Americans who are still paying for racist and unjust marijuana laws, including the current upholding of federal prohibition.
Keep reading to learn about how you can support Alvi, a legacy cannabis entrepreneur who is watching his state issue licenses while he suffers in state prison.
Here’s how he became a prisoner of prohibition, and why the entire industry must rally behind the 40,000 non-violent cannabis prisoners still suffering nationwide.
The American dream turned nightmare
At 25 years old, with close to $500,000 saved, Alvi felt he was well on his way to securing the American dream. He wasn’t aiming to be as big as the Kennedys. But he saw the power that medical cannabis had on his health, as well as those around him.
Weed helped him, his wife and countless friends with anxiety and other ailments. It also provided a nice financial cushion for the couple to raise a newborn. Until one afternoon, when his perfect life pivoted to an American nightmare.
Alvi’s wife Juli was napping with their three-week-old baby boy at about 1:30 pm when a SWAT team raided their Bergen County, New Jersey residence.
The couple still hasn’t recovered their sense of peace or familial order since that traumatic day. Special officers specializing in high-risk tasks executed the daring afternoon sweep. But Juli, a lifelong resident, just wants to know one thing: “What was the high risk that me and my newborn posed?”
The state still insists she and her husband Alvi, a vegan yogi with no violent history, were a serious threat. Instead of welcoming and rehabilitating legacy market participants who paved the way for legalization, the state is rewarding them with unusually cruel contradictions.
A cannabis patient becomes a connoisseur
Alvi’s life began in Brooklyn, and his family lived in Queens before permanently relocating to northern New Jersey when he was 7.
The first time he smoked was around 2009, at 18 or 19. After consuming, Alvi noticed the symptoms he suffered from asthma, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were suddenly relieved. He became a patient overnight, then quickly grew into a connoisseur.
“I didn’t even realize I had IBS at the time,” Ghaznavi says on a phone call with Leafly from state prison. “(Cannabis) helped me use the bathroom regularly,” he says. And apart from the physical relief, he also noticed how the plant consistently raised the spirits of him and his friends.
As an avid researcher, Alvi set out to learn everything he could about the magical plant. But he didn’t expect it to yield him over six figures in profits over the next few years.
A connoisseur becomes an entrepreneur
“I started selling weed because I just thought everybody should have it,” Alvi admits on the phone. “There wasn’t a lot of safe access to it,” he adds, “and I became that medium for a lot of people.”
This was a bold decision considering his family’s beliefs. He knew that smoking cannabis, let alone selling it, was not going to be embraced by his immediate relatives.
“My parents come from a religious family,” Ghaznavi explains. “They’re both immigrants, and they grew up believing all these stigmas about cannabis to the max.”
But Alvi knew the stigmas were based on lies. So his parents’ disapproval was not going to stop him from using cannabis to make the world a better place. Within a year of smoking for the first time, he was testing the waters as a small-time supplier.
“I wouldn’t just sell to anybody in the street,” Alvi details. “ You’d have to be referred to by somebody that I got a rapport with.” Strains like Blue Dream, Sour Diesel, Granddaddy Purple, and White Widow were on his early menu. And things were going smoothly until his first cannabis arrest in 2013.
A local pioneer turned prisoner of prohibition
“I didn’t serve any serious time, but that (felony charge) played a big role in what happened to me this go-around because I had a felony on my jacket,” Alvi says of his first cannabis infraction.
The first arrest was in Clifton, New Jersey, where Ghaznavi became a felon for possessing 16 ounces of cannabis. He received five years probation and took a two-year break from selling the plant.
While working at a diner, an old friend contacted Alvi about connecting him with his old clientele. The conversation led to networking with growers online and out of state.
The industry had grown during his time away. And this time around, Ghaznavi was serious about soaking in the crash course on entrepreneurship that was unfolding before him.
He focused more on the business side of things than before, pairing his matured business savvy with his eternal love for the plant. His new fire instantly caused him to level up.
Alvi would go on to sell up to a hundred pounds per month.
He still enjoyed the feeling of helping people who were in pain, and the money amplified that ability. His lawyers nicknamed him “the Robin Hood of weed,” inspired by his natural ability to leverage the plant for the benefit of those around him.
With medical access and decriminalization in action, and recreational legalization on the horizon, Alvi felt good about his prospects for turning his illicit cannabis operation legit. Not only could he make a better life for himself and his family, but he could also help others.
A miscarriage of justice
“The day he got arrested, Alvi had an appointment in the afternoon with a realtor for a storefront,” his wife Juli shared with Leafly on a phone call in early 2022. “Alvi was going to try and build something. He was only 25, and he had saved up about half a million dollars. He really wanted to do it legally.”
The couple made a number of sacrifices to save that much in such a short period of time. Alvi and Juli were rushing to position themselves for the high barriers to entry that license applicants in other states have faced. He didn’t want to miss out on the chance to build a real career around his passion.
“We didn’t buy a house,” Juli remembers. “We didn’t do anything. He drove a Toyota and wore the same pair of sneakers for like two years,” she says fondly of the couple’s grind era.
Then Juli remembers that the raid did not just happen by coincidence or mistake.
The police had been building a case on Alvi by allegedly checking mail and surveilling the family’s home. When they spotted a package addressed to Juli, they pounced. Juli says that despite their surveillance work, authorities mistook her for the kingpin, at first. She also says they used her to leverage Alvi into a bad plea deal.
“The court proceedings were kind of messy for a while,” Juli remembers. “Then, he had to take a plea deal because they basically said that if we didn’t take a plea deal, we’d both have to go to trial,” she adds.
“Based on the mandatory minimums, I think it was like 20-to-life (for him), and I would be looking at like 10-to-something. So he didn’t want to risk me going to trial with him and leaving our son basically with no caretaker. So, we had to take kind of a crappy deal, which was a 3-year minimum.”
Alvi appealed his conviction in 2020, but received the following ruling from New Jersey Judges Garry S. Rothstadt, Jessica R. Mayer, and Ronald Susswein: "After carefully reviewing the record... We conclude that the imposition of a twelve-year prison term with a three-year period of parole ineligibility was neither unreasonable nor shocking to the judicial conscience."
The human cost of unjust drug laws
From behind bars, Alvi’s deferred business dreams are far from his main concern. Due to the timing of his arrest, and pandemic restrictions, he has not seen his son in over 3 years.
“It’s not even me that I’m concerned about,” Alvi explains. “Every day Gov. Murphy waits, my family has to go through it to maintain the bills, and mentally stay afloat.” Alvi insists that “every single day matters” to prisoners like him.
“Politicians, lawmakers and judges move really slowly in the legal process, while we sit here, every single day matters to us,” Ghaznavi explains. “My son, he’s hurting right now. He misses his dad. He wants his dad home. He’s too little to understand what’s going on.”
That is a sentiment family nationwide are echoing, as states like New Jersey do 180-degree turns on their decades-long war against a harmless plant.
“To be honest, this experience has been pretty remarkable–And I still have a hard time processing it because our reality is so stark,” Juli says. “It’s such a different contrast now, where people are more celebratory (about legalization).
It’s pretty bittersweet for us because we’re still very much involved in the system. I was on probation for a long time, and my husband is still incarcerated.
I want to say it hasn’t even almost hit me because it’s so shocking that other people can do it. My son misses out on seeing his dad every day for the same (thing) they are celebrating.”
This is the middle, not the end of Alvi’s story
Despite all that Alvi and his family have been through, there is still cause for optimism. The Last Prisoner Project and other advocates are working relentlessly to help families like Alvi’s.
The goal is to help them regain their freedom and claim their rightful piece of the legal industry. LPP is a nonprofit that provides legal support, commissary funds, phone calls, medical fees, and other resources for affected families.
“Best case scenario, I would like to ultimately have a nationwide brand where I create and breed strains and supply dispensaries with the cannabis beds that I cultivate,” Ghaznavi says of his dreams for his future after his current nightmare ends.
“I would like to create new genetics, new strains,” he adds with the same passion that made him a natural maven of the plant before his current incarceration.
Alvi’s revitalized dream can be realized if Gov. Murphy keeps his word about righting the Drug War’s wrongs. The governor took years to sign the legalization bill he initially promised to sign in days.
Still, we will try to maintain optimism about his time-sensitive promise to prisoners like Alvi.
Even from his current predicament, Ghaznavi is confident that his story is far from finished. Until he gets a chance to begin his next chapter, Ghznavi has one question for Gov. Murphy: “If you believe weed is a good thing, why are we in prison for it right now?”
How to support Alvi and other victims of the War on Drugs
If you want to provide support for Alvi Ghaznavi and other prisoners of the War on Drugs, click here to write or donate via the Last Prisoner Project. For Giving Tuesday 2021, Leafly and LPP invited the world to donate directly to prisoners and their families. Click here to send a donation, letter, or more, adding to the $37,000-plus raised so far.