By Dave Hogan
of The Oregonian staff
SHERIDAN - Bob Leen and 34 other marijuana growers from Oregon walked out of the state's only federal prison Wednesday into a parking lot party.
Leslie Leen greeted her 48-year-old husband with cheers, laughs and hugs after he and the others gained an early release due to a change in the way federal marijuana sentences were calculated.
"We're both just in heaven right now," Leslie Leen said.
Authorities released a total of more than 70 Oregon marijuana growers from federal prisons across the country because of the sentencing change that took effect Wednesday.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission initiated the change this year after determining that the formula for figuring prison terms for marijuana growers was incorrect. It wrongly calculated the amount of marijuana yielded by the growers' plants, they found.
The new method of calculating marijuana sentences was made retroactive, reducing federal prison terms for more than 900 marijuana growers sentenced since 1989.
"There's been a recognition that the sentences were disproportionately high for the offenses that were committed," said Stephen R. Sady, chief deputy federal defender for Oregon.
Sady, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Baker and the Sheridan prison's legal adviser, Mary Sullivan, worked with court officials during the past month to have prisoners ready to be released Wednesday.
Hundreds of marijuana growers from other states also are expected to be released this month, but it was not known Wednesday how soon.
The preparation for Wednesday's release of 33 prisoners from Sheridan's minimum-security prison camp and two from the medium-security prison earned Sullivan the title of "Saint Mary" among inmates, said Leslie Leen.
"I want to thank you for all you've done," Leen told Sullivan in the prison camp parking lot.
Some of the inmates found it difficult to believe they were being freed. Sullivan said one inmate bet her five pushups that he would not be released. He lost.
Despite the advance preparation, however, the releases went slowly. Sullivan said the process was slower than expected because the mass release was unprecedented.
"We've never done this before," Sullivan explained.
Leslie Leen arrived about 8:30 a.m. but waited until 11 a.m. for the first group of six prisoners, including her husband, to walk out of prison camp.
Still, they needed to check out at another nearby building. Finally, the first three prisoners were freed about 12:30 p.m., including Jack Hanson of Brookings.
Family picked up the other two, but Hanson had to borrow a cellular phone to call his fiancee, who arrived 30 minutes later.
Still, he said he believed it was a good omen that he was among the first three prisoners released. He was not scheduled to finish his 51-month prison term until March.
"I have the worst luck with lines in the supermarket and everywhere else," said Hanson, 38. "I can't even believe this."
About 1:30 p.m., Leen walked into the arms of his wife who had been waiting about five hours. He said the delay did not dampen his excitement at being released after serving 27 months of a 46-month sentence. Under the new sentencing calculations, he would have been sentenced to a year behind bars.
"Two years and three months have taught me patience," he said, smiling.
Leen, who began smoking marijuana as a soldier in Vietnam, said he was growing the marijuana for his own use and that he smokes the drug to relieve stress and anxiety. He had no prior record.
Now, he plans to get back to his family. While he was in prison, his sister died of cancer and two grandchildren were born, including one grandson that he has not seen.
Leslie Leen and several others waiting for family members to be released Wednesday said they were members of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. They said they felt the prison penalties for marijuana crimes are unreasonably harsh.
As Sally Karo of Milwaukie waited for her son, Erik Collingwood, to be freed Wednesday, she said she believes the mandatory minimum sentences are wrong because they prevent judges from giving lesser sentences to defendants, like her 26-year-old son, who had no prior criminal record.
"They aren't allowed to consider anything except what they did," she said.
Leen and others said they hope that authorities now will reduce the crack cocaine penalties, which have been criticized for sending large numbers of young black men to prison.
Inmates at several federal prisons rioted last month after Congress decided not to reduce the crack penalties, which are more severe than sentences for crimes involving powder cocaine.
"Now they're watching all the white guys go home," Leslie Leen said. "That's supposedly what all the riots were about."
Dave Hogan covers federal courts for The Oregonian's Crime, Justice & Public Safety Team. He can be reached by phone at  221-8202, by fax at 294-5009, or at his Internet address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Two photos by staff shooter Paul Kitagaki Jr. accompanied this article in its original format.]
[Photo caption 1, p. A1:]
[Photo caption 1, p. A1:]
Bob Leen embraces his wife, Leslie, outside the Sheridan prison camp Wednesday after he received an early release because of a change in how federal marijuana sentences are calculated.
[Photo caption 2, p. A13:]
Jan Ruggio (left) and Dave MacLaren (wearing sunglasses) greet Joseph Ruggio as he leaves the Sheridan federal prison camp Wednesday.
The Marijuana Policy Project's report, Commission Votes 7-0 to Reform Marijuana Sentencing Guidelines! from the MPP's May 1995 Marijuana Policy Report.
The Marijuana Policy Project's report, Commission Votes 7-0 to Apply Sentencing Reform Retroactively! from the MPP's September/October 1995 Marijuana Policy Report.
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