The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal of a sentence for a cannabis conviction that lower courts admitted was excessive and unjust. On April 18, justices decided not to hear the case of Lee Carroll Brooker - a 75-year-old veteran from Alabama who got a life sentence with no chance of parole after he was found guilty growing marijuana that he claims was for his own personal, medical use in 2011.
According to Alabama law, if someone has certain prior convictions and is caught with with 2.2 pounds of marijuana or more, they will automatically receive a life sentence - regardless of why they were growing it or if they had any intentions to sell it.
Brooker had prior convictions for armed robbery and drug smuggling when he was busted with 34 plants, which might seem like a lot. But in the Canadian city of Markham, a patient is legally allowed to grow 146 marijuana plants, so 34 isn't exactly shocking. Indeed, law enforcers had to collect every bit of the plant - including vines and stalks that aren't smoked - just to get the weight up to 2.8 lbs for the case.
Trial judge opposed the mandatory sentence
The judge who tried the case was dismayed by the sentence he was forced to hand Brooker.
"[I]f the court could sentence you to a term that's less than life with no parole, I would," the judge said according to an opinion written by Alabama Supreme Court Justice C.J. Moore, who urged state legislators to revisit the mandatory sentencing law.
"In my view, Brooker's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent, drug-regulated crime reveals grave flaws in our statutory sentencing scheme," Justice Moore wrote in his opinion on the case.
But, Alabama's top court upheld the sentence, probably because the law - whether it is just or not - was clear, says attorney Robert McVay.
"Generally, a court is going to only be able to depart from the letter of the law if the law is written ambiguously or vaguely," McVay told Civilized. "Then they have some room to interpret what the legislature intended to mean. But in this circumstance, you have a state law that was not ambiguous - it was clear. It's hard to see how the Alabama judge could have ruled differently."
The SCOTUS justices deferred to the Alabama Supreme Court's ruling in their decision, which means that it's up to state legislators to change these harsh laws.
But it doesn't look like that will happen any time soon. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange filed a brief with the top court defending the Alabama law saying, "This case is about a lifelong criminal, convicted of six felonies in three states, the last of which resulted in a mandatory life sentence under Alabama's habitual felony offender statute."
Sadly, Brooker's case is not an isolated incident, and it could happen again in Alabama or other states with similarly draconian laws involving mandatory life sentences stemming from simple possession offences: South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi.
A huge setback for other marijuana lifers
The Supreme Court's ruling is a devastating setback for Brooker, as well as other convicts serving life sentences without parole for marijuana offences, according to Cheri Sicard - founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for prisoners serving life sentences for cannabis-related offences.
"Anytime a marijuana lifer case is given attention by the higher courts, it gives all the lifers hope," Sicard told Civilized. "Post-conviction relief is an incredibly rare thing, so a lot of people's hopes hinge on such cases. But hope can be a fragile thing, especially in prison. Hope can quickly turn to despair if things don't go the right way. Sadly though, there are many senior citizens like [Brooker] who have been rotting away for decades in prison over pot."