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Forgotten man 

Steve Tucker served a 10-year prison sentence for selling light bulbs. Is America's drug war worth it?

A year has passed since Steve Tucker made his unheralded return to Atlanta.

His one-bedroom flat, tucked into a sprawling Sandy Springs apartment complex, is furnished sparsely: a recliner, TV, computer and a small, picnic-style table that serves as both dining hutch and desk. The stark white static of the walls is interrupted only by three small, web-like dream catchers tacked to the Sheetrock.

It's the sort of Spartan minimalism one might expect of someone who, until recently, had to content himself with staring at bare cinderblock.

"Watch out, you're talking to a notorious ex-con." Wrapped in a sharp Middle Georgia twang, Tucker's voice betrays a suppressed smile. The slight, balding, 50-year-old Atlantan is hardly an intimidating figure.

But he's only half-kidding. Nearly a decade ago, he was sent to prison as a result of a once-infamous federal drug case that sparked national outrage for its rough interpretation of justice.

In the spring of 1994, the Tucker family received lengthy prison sentences -- 10 years for Steve, 16 years for his older brother Gary, and 10 years for his brother's wife, Joanne -- without possibility of parole, for the curiously worded federal crime of "conspiracy to manufacture marijuana."

Yet federal prosecutors never charged them with buying, selling, growing, transporting, smoking or even possessing marijuana. An 18-month DEA investigation had failed to turn up direct evidence connecting the Tuckers to even a single joint.

Instead, they were locked away for selling the lamps, fertilizer and gardening hardware from the small hydroponic supply shop Gary operated on Buford Highway that enabled their customers to grow pot.

In the mid-'90s, the Tucker case became a cause celebre among libertarian activists and other advocates of marijuana legalization. It served as an oft-cited, cautionary example of the runaway powers of the federal government and the worst excesses of the War on Drugs.

And yet, in the long years since, the Tucker case has faded from the radar. No TV cameras or microphones awaited Steve Tucker when he finally shed his prison uniform and came home.

His mother would rather it remain that way. "I'm just scared to death of the federal government," she says. At the same time, Doris Gore realizes her son has an important story to tell.

And he's determined to tell it. As he reads weekly accounts of federal agents in California arresting licensed medical-marijuana growers, he's convinced he must speak out.

"The feds don't like it when you buck them, but I'll be damned if they break me," Tucker says. "What kind of American would I be if I just kept my mouth shut?"

Steve Tucker's nightmare began with the American dream.

The funny thing is, the dream initially belonged to his older brother Gary, a balding Vietnam veteran with a house in the suburbs and a comfortable marriage. For nearly two decades, he and Steve had worked side-by-side, installing commercial fire-control systems for a Buckhead company. But by the fall of 1987, Gary was 40 and he yearned to be his own boss.

Gary's choice of businesses was pioneering: a store devoted to hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil or sunlight, using only powerful lamps, chemical nutrients and a self-contained irrigation system. It was, Gary decided after some research, the "wave of the future."

Whose future, however, was the question. While hydroponics is highly effective at boosting vegetable growth, the systems are so costly as to be of practical use only to orchid breeders. And, of course, to marijuana growers, who are lured by the promise of high yields that could be produced in basements and attics, away from the prying eyes of authorities.

Gary wasn't naive. He knew his customer base would include few deep-pocketed tomato enthusiasts. But just as Wal-Mart doesn't ask if the handgun ammunition it sells will be used for target practice or hold-ups, the Tuckers decided it was best to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Look, we weren't stupid," Steve says with a weary smile. "We figured a percentage of our customers were growing pot. But we had store rules that if anyone asked us about marijuana, we'd ask them to leave. What someone was planning to do with fertilizer or grow lights wasn't our concern. Most of the stuff we were selling, you could buy at Home Depot. We had a legitimate business."

To finance the start-up, Gary mortgaged his home in Gwinnett and, in the spring of 1988, his business opened in a small shopping center on the edge of Norcross. It was the first hydroponics store in Georgia.

The name Gary chose for his store -- Southern Lights And Hydroponics -- was a nod to a successful Mid-Atlantic chain called Northern Lights, which itself was named after a particularly potent strain of Alaskan weed.

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