Release inmates incarcerated under draconian marijuana laws
Sign on display at a rally for legalization of marijuana. (Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY Network)
On the heels of a historic vote in Virginia, making it the 16th state in the USA to legalize recreational marijuana use, cannabis legalization is gaining momentum. This growing acceptance by governors and state lawmakers is just a small step toward rectifying a criminal justice system that has ravaged communities of color with draconian drug laws and the failed war on drugs.
The Biden administration has made racial equity a core priority. In part, achieving this means having a strategic and intentional focus on righting the wrongs of the war on drugs. This begins with ending the criminalization of marijuana.
We know that marijuana laws have disproportionately negative impacts on Black and brown communities. This injustice and inequity is especially evident when we see people earning a life savings from the sale of marijuana, while others continue to serve life sentences under draconian federal drug laws.
My friend Corvain Cooper was one of those people.
In 2014, Cooper was sentenced to life without parole for his participation in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana. In a world where businesses were legally profiting from the plant, Cooper was set to die in prison, hundreds of miles away from his mother and two young daughters. The Buried Alive Project was privileged to work alongside numerous activists such as Alice Marie Johnson and advocacy groups, including Last Prisoner Project and 40 Tons, to see Cooper receive executive clemency earlier this year.
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Now, Cooper not only serves as brand ambassador for 40 Tons, a Black, female-owned premium cannabis, clothing and accessories brand, but he also dedicates much of his life to fighting for restorative justice for other victims of draconian drug laws.
Corvain Cooper (Photo: Emily Eizen)
In the years I have spent freeing people like Cooper from prison, I have learned that when we lose sight of the humanity of those we unjustly sentence to life, we lose sight of their particular genius, and all the brilliance that they might bring to the world. We lose sight of the fact that injustice is not the only cost, nor is the $80 billion a year doled out by taxpayers to keep people behind bars. The true loss is to society itself. By locking away the potential and ingenuity of those like Cooper, we shackle America’s future.
COVID-19 and the persistent killing by police of Black lives like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have increased the general public’s awareness of social and racial inequities that have long existed in this country. Thousands of people remain in prison, serving fundamental death sentences under outdated federal drug laws. We must use our collective power and the momentum of this moment to keep pushing for more equitable laws.
Unemployment rates are soaring due to the pandemic. States across the country are increasingly choosing the cannabis industry as a source of tax revenue and job growth. Nearly every state with legal cannabis has deemed marijuana businesses to be essential. And as an industry that employs more than 300,000 workers, it is one of the fastest-growing industries in America. In fact, national legalization in the United States could result in $128.8 billion in tax revenue and an estimated 1.6 million new jobs.
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Embracing marijuana justice means releasing and restoring individuals unjustly incarcerated under outdated drug laws. The ripple effect of their liberation will have a positive impact on their communities and lead us closer to systemic change.
Marijuana justice must be a priority for our country’s political agenda. With a simple stroke of his pen, President Joe Biden could right many of the most egregious wrongs from the federal war on drugs and would do well to commit now to granting categorical clemencies to anyone still unjustly imprisoned today under yesterday’s drug laws. We can no longer afford to waste away true potential.
Brittany K. Barnett is an award-winning attorney, author and criminal justice reform advocate.
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