Joy Biggs watched her sister die in a jail cell over an ounce of pot 

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For Joy Biggs, the memories of January 22 in the Sherman County jail ("the Bastille," locals call it) are still as vivid as the day they happened.

"I can't stop thinking about my sister dying there," Biggs tells The Pitch. "It's all too much."

Biggs remembers the dirty, western Kansas jail cell where her sister, Brenda Sewell, was lying, her life ebbing. She remembers screaming for guards to help her sister. No one did.

Sewell had been throwing up forcefully for more than 24 hours. Then her vomit turned to blood.

The two south Kansas City women ended up in the Bastille in Goodland two days after they were stopped for speeding — going nine miles over the legal limit — on Interstate 70.

A Kansas Highway Patrol trooper said he smelled pot in the passenger-seat area where Sewell was sitting, according to the trooper's report. Sewell, who owned the Cadillac, confessed to the trooper that she had marijuana, a little over an ounce, and it belonged to her, not her sister, the report said.

Sewell, 58, told the trooper that she used marijuana for medicinal purposes because she had a host of illnesses, including fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C and Sjögren's syndrome.

After watching her sister die in a jail cell, Biggs was set free. But she hasn't wakened from her nightmare.

Biggs, 54, has a long history as a law-abiding citizen, but she can't escape the long arm of the law in Sherman County. As The Pitch was going to press Tuesday, she was scheduled to plead guilty to a felony charge for failure to purchase a drug-tax stamp and to a misdemeanor for possessing marijuana.

Biggs says her attorney warned that if she went to trial and lost, she could face four years in prison. As it is, she could get six months of probation and a fine.

She adds that a guilty plea could mean the end of her job as a school-bus driver. Drivers are not allowed to have felony convictions. But she says she couldn't afford to go to trial and fight the charges, especially because the trial would be held 400 miles away.

Biggs says she can't understand why she is even charged with a crime after what happened to her sister. Especially because it wasn't her pot.

"I'm so scared to frickin' death," Biggs says.

For the trip to Colorado, her sister had taken with her about 20 grams of marijuana to treat her ailments. In that state in January, recreational marijuana had become legal, and when an opportunity arose, Sewell bought several more grams.

In the police report, the trooper wrote that Biggs "made statements that she made a mistake regarding the marijuana" but didn't give context to Biggs' comments.

Biggs says she told the trooper that it was a mistake because her sister should never have bought the marijuana and that she "didn't live her life like that."

First-time offenders often get a break when it comes to violating marijuana laws because a large number of Americans have come to believe that medicinal and recreational uses of the plant shouldn't be a crime.

Biggs is not getting a break.

"It's western Kansas, you know what I mean?" says family lawyer Bill Norton. "It's a bad deal all the way around."

 Sherman County prosecutor Charles Moser did not return a phone call requesting an interview for this story.

Biggs' criminal attorney, Todd Stramel, of Colby, also would not comment for this story.

Tai J. Vokins, a civil rights lawyer in Johnson County, says state law requires district attorneys to have a diversion program for first-time offenders. It is intended to give those who commit a relatively minor crime a second chance. It means, Volkins says, that if you "basically keep your nose clean" for a year or so, the record is expunged.

Vokins adds that Biggs appears to be a prime candidate for such a program.

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