Current Events, Legal

James Tranmer and the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church


The Brotherhood was mostly made up of white Coptics who, like Tranmer and Middleton, had arrived in Jamaica as disaffected hippies and found a home there. No one set out to have it that way, says Middleton. “It was just that we white guys had connections to move marijuana and the Jamaican’s had marijuana. It was our work for the church.” But it was a spiritual thing more than a money thing. “We considered smuggling, sharing and distributing marijuana to be an expression of our religious beliefs,” says Olsen.

Olsen says it was a very good scene. “What I saw in Jamaica with the Coptics was better than anything else going on in the world that I could see. I thought the world would be a better place if everyone lived like that. I really did.”

But they hit the big-time in the press in November, 1977, when a police raid on a farm owned by the Coptics in north Florida netted 14 tons of marijuana. Three months later, in February, 1978, 19-tons of ganja was seized while being offloaded from a motor yacht owned by the Coptics in a south Florida canal, which brought them more attention. (Tranmer was not connected to either of those busts.)The busts and the high profile of the Star Island commune—where the constant chanting and the ever-present smell of marijuana smoke upset some of their neighbors–eventually led to a 60-Minutes segment on them that initially aired on October 28, 1979.
The Coptics faced another huge bust in late October, 1980, when a boat they were using was caught holding 21-tons of pot off the coast of Maine. Middleton, Olsen and Judy Tranmer were among those arrested. Brian Tranmer was at the site as well—as he had been for the Florida Canal bust—but was underage and so was only charged as a juvenile. Charges against Judy Tranmer were dropped, but both Middleton and Olsen wound up serving federal time, Middleton got 17 1/2 and was paroled after five-years-and-ten-months. Olsen got 10-years but was paroled after two, in 1986. “The federal judge thought what we said about religion was real, so he gave me a light sentence,” says Olsen.
“The thing about that bust,” he says, “was that before we got arrested Jim got arrested and he was in jail when we got busted in Maine. And he had the boat info in his pocket when he was arrested. And we still brought that boat in knowing that the police and the DEA had that information. We believed so strongly that we were right in our spirituality that we did things most people would have been afraid to do.”

“The truth was that my father (James Tranmer) was still trying to get the Brotherhood to realize that it was wrong to make the sacrament an item of commerce for personal gain and he was trying to keep me from getting into the business.”

The Feds, using is previous convictions against him, wanted him to get life, something Tranmer said he would “welcome” in defense of the sacred herb. But conflicting testimony from Brian’s (by then) ex-fiance and his cousin, reduced the amount of weed they claimed James Tranmer knew about and he was only given 35-years. After his trial his lawyer suggested he might have gotten even less time if he’s only been contrite. But he hadn’t been. Reports from the trial say that Tranmer refused to apologize for his herb smuggling. More than that, on being sentenced, he is reported to have said—by the Panama City News Herald (July 30, 1994)—during an impassioned speech on the value of marijuana as a sacrament: “I’m an herb man. I’ve always been an herb man for more than 30-years. The herb is a sacrament: ganja is my sacrament…America is a sick nation spiritually…you cannot win this fight against marijuana. If you fight against the herb, you fight against creation.” And then, as if goading the sentencing judge, he added, “I will take anything you give me for ganja. You can’t take ganja away from the people. Ganja is what is given by God for the people and you can’t take that away from them.”

James Tranmer, BOP #17547-050, is currently incarcerated in Springfield, Missouri.

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