Though his fate hung in the balance on Election Day, Corvain Cooper didn’t get to cast a ballot.
The 37-year-old was in a cell in central California’s Atwater federal prison, where he’s serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for convictions involving marijuana.
“I was placed in a federal prison at its highest level, with felons who all committed acts of violence,” the Los Angeles native said in a series of monitored emails sent from prison.
“Yet they all have release dates.”
Soon, Cooper could too.
Though most of the attention surrounding Proposition 64 centers on how the measure made it legal for adults to consume recreational marijuana, the law also did something else: potentially reduce prison sentences and clear old criminal records related to marijuana.
Cooper is one of more than 6,000 people serving time who could potentially have their time behind bars shortened or even go free now that Prop. 64 has passed, according to an estimate by the Drug Policy Alliance, which is funding the measure.
Another 1 million people convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies could petition to have their records changed or cleared, the nonprofit organization estimates. That would give them wider access to jobs, housing and other services that are currently out of reach.
“The criminal code changes are so profound that, even if I didn’t like other things in the initiative, I would vote for it just for that,” said Chris Conrad, a longtime marijuana activist who backed Prop. 64 even as many friends in the medical cannabis community remained divided over the measure.
CRIMINAL ASPECT OF POT?
Opponents of Prop. 64 had many objections to the measure, including the provision that could allow convicted drug dealers who’ve served out their sentences to enter the newly legal pot market.
But Andrew Acosta, spokesman for the No on 64 campaign, said the measure’s criminal justice reforms haven’t been a big point of contention. That’s because many people say they view pot as essentially legal in California today.
Medical marijuana was decriminalized in 1996, allowing residents to buy it or grow it at home with an easy-to-get doctor’s recommendation.
And in 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made carrying small amounts of marijuana an infraction. That triggered an 86 percent drop in misdemeanor arrests for pot over the past five years.
“I don’t have people in jail for possession of marijuana unless it’s a lot of marijuana packaged for sales,” said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who opposed Prop. 64.
But a Drug Policy Alliance report shows California still has an average of 11,000 felony arrests for marijuana-related crimes each year, with more than half of those resulting in time behind bars. And data show minorities are more likely than whites to be arrested or jailed.
A CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE?
Though black, Latino and white people consume and sell pot at similar rates, the Drug Policy Alliance report shows Latinos were 26 percent more likely than white people to be arrested for a marijuana felony in 2015, while blacks were five times as likely.
“It’s almost always white people who say that law enforcement leaves us alone when it comes to drugs – and especially when it comes to marijuana,” said Lynne Lyman, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance.
When white people are caught with more than an ounce of weed, Lyman said, they commonly get charged with possession, which is a misdemeanor that might carry just a $500 fine.
But minorities caught with the same amount are often charged with intent to sell, the data show, which is a felony that could get them up to three years in prison.
Such racial disparities are the reason Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker gave more than $7 million to support Prop. 64, according to campaign spokesman Jason Kinney. And they’re the main reason rapper Jay Z, actor Danny Glover and a number of other stars cited for backing Prop. 64.
Opponents of the measure point out studies that show uneven enforcement hasn’t improved even in states that have legalized marijuana.
While marijuana arrests dropped by 60 percent in Colorado and 90 percent in Washington state from 2008 to 2014, after these states legalized pot, a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice study found that blacks were still two times more likely to be arrested for related crimes than whites.
“It shows that once again legalization advocates are only paying lip service to racial justice questions to advance the agenda of the marijuana industry,” said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which funded opposition to Prop. 64.
Sabet and other opponents argue that legal marijuana actually harms minority communities, with a concentration of pot shops and farms popping up in poor Colorado neighborhoods.
There’s evidence of that trend already playing out in California, with low-income cities such as Adelanto and Desert Hot Springs among the first to permit commercial marijuana cultivation in hopes of balancing their budgets with pot tax revenues.
While legalizing marijuana doesn’t even the playing field, Lyman said it does reduce the number of blacks and Latinos arrested.
Lyman also points out that up to $50 million generated by Prop. 64 taxes would go toward grants for job training and other services in communities such as Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Riverside, which have historically high drug incarceration rates.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM
With Prop. 64 cruising to a clear victory Tuesday, a sweeping overhaul to California’s criminal code kicked in Wednesday.
“Other than selling to minors and home butane extraction,” which is using volatile materials to make marijuana concentrates, Lyman said, “Prop. 64 reduces or eliminates every marijuana criminal penalty currently on the books.”
Before the measure passed, anyone without a medical marijuana card who was caught with an ounce of weed faced a $100 ticket, while non-patients growing a few plants at home could have gotten a felony. Under Prop. 64, both of those activities are now legal for anyone 21 and older.
Prop. 64 is the nation’s first legalization measure that eliminates all pot-related criminal penalties for people under 18, with jail time and fines swapped out for community service and drug education courses. And at age 18, related criminal records will be sealed so convictions couldn’t stop them from getting financial aid for college or other services.
The measure increases one fine: A ticket for smoking pot where tobacco is banned would go up by $150.
But law enforcement can no longer use the smell of marijuana, or the presence of paraphernalia, as a basis for broader searches.
Conrad, who has served as an expert witness in some 2,500 marijuana-related cases, said removing weed as probable cause will eliminate a common point of contact with police that often escalates into something more serious.
“Out of all the court cases I have been involved with, probably 50 percent start off with cops saying they smell marijuana,” he said.
Mike Ramos, district attorney for San Bernardino County, and other law enforcement leaders take issue with Prop. 64 allowing people with prior drug convictions to work in the newly legal pot market.
“It’s one thing to have a conversation about formerly incarcerated drug offenders working in a dispensary,” said Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “This is an inflexible mandate imposed by the drafters of Proposition 64 to allow drug traffickers to own and operate marijuana cultivation sites and dispensaries.”
Lyman argues it would be a “harm upon harm” for industry pioneers who’ve paid for their crimes to be denied licenses once cannabis becomes a legitimate career.
CLEARING THE RECORD
Since Prop. 64 reduces penalties retroactively, anyone who’s been convicted of a marijuana-related misdemeanor or felony in California could petition to have their sentences reduced or their records expunged.
And some people with pending marijuana charges could see them automatically dropped or downgraded.
That could remove thousands of barriers now facing people who have criminal records for pot, according to Eunisses Hernandez with Drug Policy Alliance, with felony convictions affecting everything from their ability to own a gun to adopting a child.
Ingrid Archie knows about those obstacles all too well.
She grew up in foster care after her alcoholic mother attacked her older sister with a knife.
When she was 18, Archie was living with someone who was involved in gangs and drugs. Their L.A. home was raided, and officers seized a large amount of marijuana. Archie spent three years in state prison.
After she got out, Archie tried to get her life on track. She’d been working at Verizon for a couple of years in 2009 when the company instituted a stricter policy regarding employees with felonies. She was immediately laid off, which triggered several more rough years.
Today, Archie has regained full custody of her two daughters and is working at a nonprofit in Los Angeles that helps families impacted by incarceration. Still, she has that felony drug possession conviction on her record.
LIVES IN LIMBO
With polls showing Prop. 64 likely to pass, Drug Policy Alliance was already planning free legal clinics to help people petition to have their sentences or records changed.
Archie expected to be at the nonprofit’s Election Night party in Los Angeles. With the measure approved, aides planned to assist her in filling out paperwork on the spot to ask for that 2004 felony charge to be cleared from her record.
Just north of Merced, at Atwater federal prison, Cooper was waiting to hear the news.
In 2011, he was caught with half a pound of marijuana and served nearly a year in jail.
He said he learned his lesson, focusing after his release on his fiancée, two daughters and a clothing store he opened in his old neighborhood.
Then in 2013, federal agents swarmed his driveway. Soon, he was being extradited to North Carolina, where a childhood friend got a reduced sentence by fingering Cooper as being involved in a decade-old conspiracy to traffic pot.
The conviction should have given Cooper perhaps 10 years behind bars, but prosecutors used his prior offenses to enhance his sentence. The judge had no choice but to give him life in prison without parole.
“The crime didn’t fit the time,” argued Cooper’s mother, Barbara Tillis, who now lives in Rialto.
Cooper appealed the sentence and lost. Then Long Beach activist Cheri Sicard told him about Prop. 64, and he felt a surge of hope.
Under the measure, his 2011 marijuana felony could become a misdemeanor. He could then petition for his sentence to be reduced to the original 10 years.
With credit for time served and good behavior, Cooper could potentially be out of prison within a couple of years now that Prop. 64 will become law.
This article was first published at OCRegister.com.