Corvain Cooper has a harder and harder time explaining to his young daughters why he’s locked up.
The 37-year-old was sentenced to life without parole in 2014 for a nonviolent cannabis offense in North Carolina – specifically, conspiring to distribute marijuana and laundering money.
While the strides being made by cannabis legalization activists in the United States give him hope that things may one day turn around for he and his fellow ‘marijuana lifers’, those same gains make it increasingly difficult to illustrate for his daughters why they may never see their father outside of prison again.
“There are more marijuana stores [in some states] than there are liquor stores … and Colorado is one of the biggest tourist states [for cannabis] in the world right now,” Cooper told Civilized over the phone from the high-security federal penitentiary in Atwater, California.
“I have to explain to my two daughters that… their father is in jail for life over a [substance] that people are doing all day in California.”
Of the uncounted number of U.S. citizens serving life for non-violent cannabis offenses, a case like Cooper’s is particularly striking because of how recently it occurred, said Marijuana Lifer Project founder Cheri Sicard.
“While most of the men we know serving life for marijuana are senior citizens who have been incarcerated for decades, the practice of handing out life sentences for nonviolent marijuana ‘crimes’ continues,” Sicard writes on her website, which advocates for about 20-and-counting ‘marijuana lifers.’
“Most people don’t even realize there’s such a thing as a non-violent offender serving a life sentence… they always assume there’s something I’m not telling them, that there’s got to be a dead body somewhere,” she recently told Civilized.
“That, or they think this kind of thing isn’t happening anymore, that it’s of a bygone era so they don’t have to worry about it.”
The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth, said Sicard. And while the 1,715 commutations for nonviolent drug offenders granted by former U.S. president Barack Obama was considered a “great victory for some”, Sicard said there appears to be no rhyme or reason for who gets granted clemency and many deserving men were left behind.
All of this – paired with the less-than-encouraging comments made by President Donald Trump’s administration about the future of cannabis in the U.S. – makes optimism a tall order for prisoners like Cooper. Still, he strives to stay positive; there's no other option.
“When the [judge] hit the gavel and said I had a life sentence without the possibility of parole and I’d never be home and I’d die in jail, it was kind of breathtaking,” he said. “It’s startling to people that this is still happening… [but] I have faith that the system will overturn it.”