The war on drugs has disproportionately and devastatingly affected communities of color. As a brand in the cannabis space, we have an imperative to raise awareness around these injustices and call for change. This month, we’re launching The Human Toll: How the War on Cannabis Targeted Black America, a three-part short documentary series produced with Vanity Fair. The series explores the racist history of the weaponization of cannabis, the rise and collateral consequences of mass incarceration, and the stories of those whose lives were directly impacted by failed drug policy.
Corvain Cooper is one of those people. And his story is emblematic of the two disparate realities currently taking place in the U.S.—one where some are able to profit off cannabis and the other where a non-violent, cannabis-related offense can lead to a life sentence. Today, 40,000+ cannabis prisoners still remain locked up.
In 2013, Corvain received a life sentence without parole after a “third strike” for his participation in a cannabis distribution operation. Despite the relatively minor offense, his punishment was grossly disproportionate, locking him away at a federal prison in Louisiana, apart from his then fiancée and two children, for something that was increasingly becoming legalized across the country. Throughout his years in prison, activists and voters continued the campaign to reform cannabis laws across the U.S. and Corvain finally—and fortunately—received a grant of executive clemency from President Donald Trump during his final days in office.
Out on 10 years of parole, Corvain is reuniting with his friends and family, rebuilding his life, and championing the cause for 40 Tons, a Black, woman-owned premium cannabis, clothing, and accessories brand from Los Angeles, California. It took the hard work of many individuals and organizations, including the entire 40 Tons team, to help break Corvain free. Corvain now serves as an advisor to the Last Prisoner Project and is the author of a poignant four part memoir Look Into My Eyes set to be released later this year.
How was your incarceration indicative of the larger issues in the world today around racial injustice and restorative justice for victims of the war on drugs?
People of color face harsher sentences at a disproportionate rate. Just look at the statistics. My incarceration was a difficult and traumatic experience. However, now that it is over, I’m more focused on what we can do to help our communities and prevent the next person from making the same mistakes that I did.
As a society, we need to let our legislators know that these harsh conspiracy laws are tearing up families and communities at an alarming rate. As they stand now, they are old, outdated, and draconian. These laws were meant to incarcerate the poor and people of color, and there have been many victims of this war on drugs. We must not only change those laws that are racist in nature, but as cannabis laws reform as part of the legalization movement, we have to ensure that decriminalization or sentencing adjustments are addressed too.
When you can get a life sentence without the possibility of parole over a nonviolent cannabis offense, while others are legally profiting off the plant, then something needs to change—immediately!
What led to your clemency?
Multiple people and organizations coming together and pushing the story forward — It took the entire cannabis industry to come together and shout that my situation was one worthy of clemency. Organizations and people like the Last Prisoner Project, Alice Johnson, Marijuana Matters DC, Brittany K Barnett with the Buried Alive Project, Cando Clemency, Weldon Angelos' Project Mission Green and Loriel Alegrete with 40 Tons Brand and many more all played pivotal roles in this success. Ultimately, the fact that I have two daughters is something Ivanka Trump felt passionate about and that led her to champion my cause to her father.
What was it like being incarcerated for cannabis, while witnessing the explosion of the state-legal cannabis industry around you?
It was hard. I’d hear stories about things, like how my former clothing store I owned had turned into a dispensary. My children would tell me that they’d see dispensaries all over the city and yet their daddy was in prison for cannabis. It wasn’t easy. I felt like it was really unfair at the time, but think it’s important to note that inequity continues even after my incarceration.
Due to the conditions of my parole, I can not hold equity ownership in any plant-touching cannabis business. I think that this needs to be reformed and that there have to be opportunities for participation in the state-legal cannabis industry for those of us who are coming out of prison for cannabis offenses and working to rebuild our lives.
Are there processes in place to help you rebuild your life? What else is needed to truly restore an equitable place in the world for cannabis prisoners?
I wouldn’t say there are any processes in place where once you are set free, things are ready to go. It’s really about finding the resources and helping yourself. A closed mouth doesn’t get fed. You have to go out and find the opportunities. However, there are great organizations out there trying to do the best they can. You just have to find them. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be an advisor to the Last Prisoner Project and support their important work—they’ve done some great things for me and helped a lot with my reentry.
I would say that people have been very supportive to me personally. They want to help and get involved in what I am working on. I have a fundraiser on Go Fund Me that is a place where people can contribute to my reentry. Lots of people have helped and I’m very thankful for that.
How can our PAX community support your cause?
By sharing my story and that of others like me. And by supporting 40Tons Brand, which I’m a Brand Ambassador for—40 Tons is 100% real, authentic cannabis and cannabis culture standing up for those who fought, and still fight today, the tired and traumatic war over legalization.
With a mission to break the chains of these injustices stemming from prohibition, every 40 Tons purchase helps non-violent cannabis prisoners, like myself, fight their unjust sentences, engage in restorative justice, and find full, equitable lives once they return home to their families.
Tune in to Part 1 of The Human Toll: War on Race today and stay tuned to hear more from Corvain in Parts 2 and 3 coming out later this month.