California’s Proposition 64—The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)—is a 62-page manifesto of government over-regulation. But ultimately, as the founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for federal prisoners serving life sentences, I decided to vote yes because the initiative does a lot of good.
Under Prop 64, most marijuana felonies in the state of California will become misdemeanors, and that applies retroactively. This means state marijuana prisoners get an immediate chance at release. But even beyond state prisoners, this law will also help some federal prisoners.
One such inmate is Corvain Cooper, 37, serving a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) for a nonviolent marijuana conspiracy. Two California state priors for marijuana helped prosecutors win that harsh sentence in federal court. However, if Prop 64 passes, Corvain’s prior felonies would become misdemeanors, and he would no longer qualify for a life sentence.
“I pray every night for the passage of this law,” Cooper said. “My daughters are depending on it, and I am tired of lying to them about when I am coming home. I want people to understand that their vote can give so many people a second chance at life. It gives me a second chance at life, and gives my daughters a second chance to spend the rest of their lives with their dad.”
Prop 64 will also help medical marijuana provider and federal prisoner Dustin Costa, 70, who has a prior cultivation felony in California on his record. As a marijuana activist, Costa expressed reservations about the initiative, but like me, ultimately came down on the pro side.
“I haven’t read Prop 64, but from what I’ve heard, it is pretty restrictive,” said Costa. “Nevertheless, its passage would legalize a drug that has been maligned for upwards of a century. What that means is that the public will finally have the opportunity for a fact-based learning experience. As for Prop 64 not going far enough, I think a better way to view it is as a pathway to understanding and thus a baby step toward full acceptance. I would vote for it on that basis alone, despite its shortcomings.”
Corvain Cooper and Dustin Costa have vested interests in the passage of Prop 64, but I wondered how other federal marijuana inmates, who would not be directly impacted, felt about activists encouraging people to vote against a legalization bill, regardless of how bad the bill might be.
Paul Free, 66, also serving LWOP in USP Atwater along with Corvain Cooper, believes Prop 64’s passage will hasten prohibition’s end.
“If California—a state that’s the 6th largest economy in the world—legalizes, the feds are going to have to do something,” Free said.
John Knock, 69, a first time offender sentenced to TWO life sentences for marijuana, echoed those sentiments: “Old hippies tend to think things should be perfect. In politics, that just doesn’t happen. The sooner it is passed the better it will be for all.”
Edwin Rubis, 48, who has already served 18 years of a 40-year sentence, had strong opinions.
“I believe that activists who are willing to wait longer for a better bill are not participating in their call to legalize marijuana,” Rubis said. “Any step is progress and to take a neutral or negative stance only adds to the severity of injustice. Failure to act in the affirmative is to cede that marijuana should remain illegal and thus, those of us incarcerated remain as is.”
It was difficult for the prisoners I spoke with, some of whom have been waiting decades for a chance at freedom, to understand how and why the issue of legalizing marijuana has become as contentious to cannabis activists in California as the presidential election is to the general public.
Waiting for perfect bills is simply not a luxury any of these men can afford.
John Knock summed up the perspective well.
“The Union was designed for one state to try something and the rest to learn from that,” he said. “Colorado did it and now it’s time for California to step up, even if it is not perfect. What, if anything, is?”
Cheri Sicard is the founder and director of the Marijuana Lifer Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for federal prisoners serving life sentences.