James Tranmer has already served 13-years of a 35-year sentence for conspiracy to import marijuana. The US Bureau of Prisons has his projected release date as June 27, 2024. He was 50-years-old when he entered and he’ll be 80 when he’s released. To the government who incarcerated him, Tranmer represented all that was bad about marijuana and the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church headquartered in Jamaica and with a compound on Star Island, just off Miami Beach, FL. To those who know him, he is an intensely spiritual man who believes that marijuana use must spread if humanity is to ever break the shackles of Babylon.
For years, James Tranmer, his wife and son Brian, were part of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. Though the church itself—a sect of Rastafarianism—only officially became incorporated during the mid-1970s, according to Carl Olsen, a longtime marijuana activist, a friend of Tranmer’s and a priest in the church, “the church’s roots reach back to Africa, to the Coptic Church in the area of what’s now Egypt—which separated itself from Roman Catholicism in the third century AD. Those Coptics were basically gnostic Christians. They didn’t believe that God lives somewhere up in the sky. They believe that God lives within each one of us, that we are the body of God and that what matters is how we treat each other here on earth.
“The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church believes the same things. The branch, if you want to call it that, was started by slaves brought to Jamaica from Africa and deprived of their religion. When they were given their freedom they looked back to Africa, to their roots, and identified with the Christian beliefs in Africa and identified with the Coptic Church.”
Among their beliefs is that cannabis is the plant consistently referred to in the Bible—from the burning bush to daily bread—and that smoking it several times a day during prayer is vital to one’s connection with God. They also believe that in smoking the sacred herb, people grew to understand the nature of God in themselves and each other, a prerequisite to making this world a better place for everyone.
James Tranmer was a cannabis smoker—he considered it both a sacrament and a blessing—and spiritual seeker living in Iowa in the mid-1960s. He ran a huge place in Iowa City called the River City Free Trade Zone, a four-story Montgomery Ward building that he’d taken over with some friends and turned into an alternative mall with book and record stores, organic food stores and such. The Free Zone was successful enough that the Des Moines Register once did a feature story on it and referred to it as Hippy Capitalism.
James met Judy while she was in junior college. “He came down to the college and a bunch of us went to a dance,” she told Skunk. “And we just fell in love and began making our four babies.”
She describes her husband at that time as someone who was intensely spiritual and “searching for something that he felt should be there but wasn’t.”
He found it when a friend convinced him to take a trip to Jamaica in 1971, where he ran into some Ethiopian Coptics and discovered that they felt the same way about spirituality and the herb as he did. “When he came back,” says Judy, “he was on fire” and told her they should pack up and go live there. Not long afterward, they did.
Though the Coptics were dirt poor, both James and Judy and a number of their other friends found an affinity with them. “One of the things that drew us to the Coptics was that they seemed to have an idea of how to make things right in the world,” says Cliff Middleton, a church member and friend of James going back to the Free Zone days. “They shared everything. They had a little land and grew their own organic food on it. They grew marijuana and gave it away. We were guys who were not satisfied with that was going on in the world. And then we run into these guys who say that the world is a mess because people are not living by the true interpretation of the bible and not smoking enough marijuana. The problem is, if you take that thought far enough, you will wind up in jail.”
To James and his friends, having their beliefs grounded in the church, and having a duty to spread marijuana use led quickly to moving loads of marijuana from Jamaica to the US. Large loads, frequently topping several tons. And all of the money that was made was poured into buying more land for the church in Jamaica. “We were the Brotherhood,” says Middleton. “Our job in the church was to move the marijuana and spread the word.”
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. “We thought that the more people we could bring into this thing, the better the world would be.
“And every time we dealt with someone,” he adds, “we tried to get them to understand the spiritual significance of the herb. Those that didn’t we soon distrusted. We felt they would give us up to the police in a minute. But we knew that believers would never do that.”
Like most in the Brotherhood, “Jim never cared about the money from the marijuana,” says Judy Tranmer, who remains extremely loyal to him. “Other than having a place for his family to live he felt that the money generated by the marijuana sales should go to better the church and help the families that were involved rather than going to make himself wealthy.”
By the mid-1970s the Coptics, with the help of funds raised by the Brotherhood, owned large tracts in Jamaica and had over a thousand locals working with them, raising organic fruit and vegetables, cattle, working irrigation and forestry projects. They had a container company, a trucking firm and an auto-parts company. And they weren’t done growing. By 1975 they were flourishing enough to buy a compound on exclusive Star Island off Miami Beach for communal use by church members. And by 1980, according to Brian Tranmer, who was raised in Jamaica, and recently finished serving more than 13-years on the bust his father was later charged with conspiracy in, the Coptics were the largest land owners in Jamaica, and were supporting nearly 10,000 locals in an otherwise impoverished area.
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.”
For the first few years of cannabis “sharing and distribution” the Coptics were able to stay under the radar of the federal government. There were busts, but they were mostly minor. Tranmer was busted several times, as were others, but none for large loads and he never served more than a year in jail.
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.”
Tranmer, described by his family and friends as one of the top spiritual leaders of the church, began to feel a distance between himself and the church in the early 1980s. “Jim was a genuine believer in marijuana as something from god that could save the human race,” says Olsen. “And he believed that all the money coming in from the smuggling was corrupting the church and the Brotherhood.”
By 1985 he’d left the church altogether. In a letter to Olsen explaining why he left, Tranmer wrote: “I realized that the focus of the Coptics was no longer on the upliftment of the human spirit…. Though I remain adrift and estranged from my brothers and sisters of the spirit and though my corruption is as singly detestable as anything to me, my hope for spiritual unity and the sound of one praise is as unshakable as the day of my awakening.”
Brian Tranmer remembers his father changing. “It happened when smuggling herb went from being something to spread the word to a way to make money. He felt they’d taken the holy sacrament and turned it into commerce. My father and a few others, including Carl Olsen, tried to get them to get out of the smuggling business, but they couldn’t.”
Brian though, admits to being angry with his father over his handling of all the money made on the huge pot loads—estimated by the federal government to have been over 100 tons in all. “I watched people make fortunes on his back and risks, and I was sort of mad about that. And I was mad at my dad for not getting a little more for us, for not protecting himself and his family. My mom and a lot of my family have to struggle because of his beliefs. And there are many people to this day who have unbelievable wealth because of what he did. And many of those people forsook him when he went to prison.”
Tranmer had moved from the church’s headquarters on Jamaica and on Star Island to Arkansas by 1986. A couple of years later he was back in jail for a year on another pot bust, and when he came out in 1990 he had decided to quit the business altogether.
Unfortunately, his son Brian was just ready to get into it. He used his dad’s contacts in Jamaica to buy a 2,000 pound load—it was later upped to 5,000 pounds—got a boat and searched around for a captain who could make the trip from Jamaica to Panama City, Florida. “I was introduced to one captain who turned out to be an old coke smuggler who had been arrested and was under the thumb of the DEA. Of course, I didn’t know that. And of course it turned out to be a set-up.”
The set-up led to a bust after Brian Tranmer’s load came into Panama City, Florida in 1991. In on the load—which Brian admits he was doing more to make money than for spiritual reasons—were Brian’s fiance and a cousin of his.
After the arrest, during which Brian had his arm broken by DEA agents, the DEA and federal prosecutors tried to get Brian to implicate his father in the deal. The Feds were furious that James Tranmer had never been picked up with one of the Coptics’ bid loads and were determined to get him, whether or not he was guilty of the crime. Brian insisted that his father was innocent in that escapade, but says that even if he had been involved he would not have snitched—no one in the Brotherhood ever ratted on anyone else—so the government turned to the others on the boat. It didn’t take long before both Brian’s fiance and cousin implicated James Tranmer as a conspirator in the operation. “Mandatory minimuns had kicked in, and people were getting big time by then,” explained Brian, who was sentenced to 184-months in the case and served over 13-years of that. “My cousin was told he was going to do 30-years if he didn’t say his uncle, my father, was involved. And eventually he told them that he’d heard my father and I talking about how to fix boatloads properly. My fiance also said the same thing and they made deals for short sentences. I understand why they did it. They were just terrified.”
“The truth was that my father 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.”
For James Tranmer, the truth didn’t matter. Three years after his son began serving his sentence, after Tranmer had moved to New York City and opened a crafts shop on St. Mark’s place in Greenwich Village, his shop was raided and he was charged with conspiracy in his son’s case.
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.”
His time on the inside was mitigated for a while when he roomed with his son Brian. “We were roommates in the Federal Penitentiary in Pecan, Illinois for four-and-a-half-years,” says Brian, who remains in constant contact with his dad. “You know, he got far more time than any of the other Coptics did. And he really had nothing to do with my load. He’s completely clean on that. But he’s a very strong person and genuinely believes that he has to be persecuted for the herb because that’s something Babylon has to do since Babylon—the ruling powers—knows the spirit of the herb and that it gives people the strength to rebel.”
Olsen, who also remains in touch with him, says he doesn’t think Tranmer is “as upset at being convicted for something he didn’t do as he is with being convicted for something that shouldn’t have been illegal in the first place. But he’s strong and has a great sense of humor. And he’s got his family and they’re still loyal to him.”
Tranmer’s wife Judy says that the imprisonment of her husband has been difficult but that she’s managed. “There are times I wondered how I could go on, but then I’d think of my kids and I had to be there for them.
“We just have to go on with our lives. Jamaica and Star Island were a great experience for us and our children and it was a wonderful spiritual journey. And now that it’s taken a different turn we just have to continue on.”
James Tranmer, BOP #17547-050, is currently incarcerated in Springfield, Missouri.