(CBS/AP) DETROIT - A southeastern Michigan farmer recovering from throat cancer has been sentenced to probation instead of prison for growing thousands of marijuana plants, due partly to many handwritten letters from supporters who described him as a modest, selfless man who helps others at every turn.
"This is one that most screams out: This man deserves a break," U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said Tuesday.
Edwin Schmieding, 61, was caught growing 8,000 marijuana plants at his Lenawee County farm and greenhouse in 2011. His wife told police that they were trying to tap the state's medical marijuana market, although production on that scale is illegal.
Schmieding's attorney, Sanford Schulman, noted that most of the plants were small and of low quality.
"I take full responsibility for my actions," Schmieding told the judge as relatives wept in the courtroom gallery. "I've lived a hard-working life. I give you my word: I'll be a responsible citizen."
Schmieding began growing marijuana in 2010 after years of growing cut flowers and other plants. He and wife Linda lived in a home built with their own hands and warmed by firewood during winter.
Friedman was influenced by letters from relatives and friends, even Schmieding's former wife. A neighbor said Schmieding regularly lent tools and helped him pour concrete.
Family members said they were inspired by his modesty and independence as well as his courage during cancer treatments.
"Because of this farming that will someday be legal ... his family lost everything. He has suffered enough," brother-in-law Arthur Radabaugh wrote.
Michigan voters in 2008 approved the use of marijuana to relieve the side effects of certain illnesses. But only licensed caregivers and users can grow it in relatively small quantities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney C. Barrington Wilkins didn't object to a departure from the sentencing guidelines. He said Schmieding "wasn't intending to be Pablo Escobar," a notorious Colombian drug lord. Friedman gave Schmieding credit for a day in custody and placed him on supervised release, or probation, for two years.
"It's a bad thing that's happened to you but you've lived a good life," the judge said.
Schmieding still is likely to lose his farm because of the drug conviction. Wilkins recently dropped charges against Linda Schmieding.