Corvain Cooper is working to help free others who are still behind bars for marijuana convictions. And he’s fighting to find a place in the licensed cannabis sector for himself and others like him, who helped pave the way for a multibillion dollar industry that became legal in California and a dozen other states while he was serving time.
‘Just give us legacy guys a seat at the table.’
This Fourth of July held new meaning for Corvain Cooper, who feared he’d never celebrate another holiday as a free man.
Six months ago, Cooper was in a prison in Louisiana. The Los Angeles native had been sentenced to federal prison in 2014 for his role in a scheme to sell marijuana across state lines. Though there had been no allegations of violence, Cooper’s two prior minor drug convictions meant the cannabis conviction was a third strike, forcing a judge to send the then-34-year-old to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
But on Jan. 19, as one of his last actions as president, Donald Trump granted Cooper clemency.
“That was a moment in history right there,” Cooper said through his slow-spreading grin.
In his six months as a free man, Cooper’s life has changed dramatically.
He’s getting to know his daughters, who became a teen and preteen while he was away. He found an apartment to rent in the Hollywood Hills. He found love with a woman who served time in the same cannabis trafficking case that sent him to prison seven years ago.
And he’s become something of a celebrity advocate for the social justice issues connected to cannabis incarceration, litigation and legalization.
Cooper, now 41, these days is working to help free others who are still behind bars for marijuana convictions. And he’s fighting to find a place in the licensed cannabis sector for himself and others like him, who helped pave the way for a multibillion dollar industry that became legal in California and a dozen other states while he was serving time.
“I’ve been saying the same thing that brought me down was gonna be the same thing that brought me back up,” said Cooper, whose parole terms prevent him from working directly with the plant for the next decade.
“Just give us legacy guys a seat at the table,” he said. “We’re not asking to drive or be at the front. Just give us a chance.”
Stuck in the system
Cooper grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He took the bus to attend Hollywood High School, where he graduated with solid grades in 1997. But soon he started getting in trouble with neighborhood friends. From 1998 to 2011 court records show Cooper was convicted of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes, including petty theft, forgery and perjury. In 2011, after he was caught with a brick of marijuana and cough syrup with codeine that wasn’t prescribed to him, he served nearly a year in state prison.
When Cooper was released from that sentence, in July 2012, he said he’d learned his lesson. He turned his attention to his fiancée, two young daughters, and making an honest living through a clothing store he opened in his old neighborhood.
But on Jan. 28, 2013, as Cooper was taking his oldest daughter to drill team competition, federal agents appeared in Cooper’s Inglewood driveway and placed him under arrest. He learned one of his childhood friends had recently received a reduced sentence by fingering Cooper as one of several people helping to traffic marijuana to the East Coast since 2004.
Authorities didn’t catch Cooper in the act or find him with cash or weed beyond that one brick in 2009. Instead, the case is a textbook example of what’s known among prosecutors and convicts alike as “ghost dope,” with investigators relying on phone records and testimony from a string of fellow conspirators about actions that allegedly previously occurred.
On Oct. 21, 2013, Cooper was found guilty of money laundering, tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute one ton of marijuana.
No one else arrested in the trafficking investigation, including the alleged leader of the network, was sentenced to a life term. And many of Cooper’s co-conspirators have been free for several years. But because Cooper had two prior drug felonies on his record, prosecutors in North Carolina insisted on applying a Three Strikes law to Cooper’s case. At sentencing, the judge said he had no choice but to send Cooper away for life.
Cooper’s prospects improved in 2017, when changes in California law reduced both of Cooper’s prior drug convictions from felonies to misdemeanors, changing the criminal history on which he’d been sentenced. Still, a federal court in North Carolina refused to reduce Cooper’s punishment.
With few options left, Cooper’s attorney, Patrick Megaro, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also began directly petitioning Trump for clemency, with support from a number of people and organizations who work to free people who are in prison for cannabis crimes.
‘You got clemency’
Cooper had started to let himself feel optimistic as the end of Trump’s term approached, knowing the president would announce his final pardons before leaving the White House.
Months earlier, Cooper’s childhood friend, Anthony Alegrete, who served a short sentence related to the same trafficking case, and his wife, Loriel Alegrete, had launched 40 Tons, a streetwear clothing and cannabis company focused on advocating for Cooper and others facing long sentences for marijuana. The name came from the amount of cannabis authorities had seized in the North Carolina case.
Cooper also had been featured in a documentary that aired on BET in 2020 and in a story that ran on the front page of the New York Times. Plus, he thought Trump’s personality played well for him.
“Trump is unpredictable. You don’t know what Trump is going to do.”
Also, Cooper added of Trump, “He hates a snitch.”
It was 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, Trump’s last day in office. Cooper knew his name needed to be on the clemency list by midnight. A recent inmate stabbing had forced his Louisiana prison into lockdown — something Cooper said was as common as a “sunny day in California” — so Cooper was left to yell from his cell to anybody who might be able to see the CNN chyron listing the names of Trump pardons.
“Do you see my name on the list?” he yelled, over and over. “We don’t see your name,” the yelled responses came back. Eventually he told himself, “It is what it is,” and he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, he recalls thinking, “Guess I got to get back to doing a life sentence after all this push.” As he walked to the shower, his fellow inmates could see he was dejected and told him to keep his head up. But as he saw footage that morning of President Joe Biden getting inaugurated, and Trump boarding a helicopter to leave the White House, he felt like his fate was sealed.
About 15 minutes after he got back to his cell, he got word that a counselor was “on the range” — prison lingo for an outsider in their cell block. That was unusual, especially during a lockdown. Then a guard came to Cooper’s cell door, handing him a trash bag and delivering the message that changed everything:
“Man, you got five minutes to pack… You got clemency.”
Cooper said it wasn’t until they were walking down the cell block that the reality of what just happened started to sink in.
“As we go by each door in the prison, I’m giving away my stuff and I’m screaming at everybody, ‘Walk by faith and not by sight,’ because I believe in God.”
Cooper’s first call from a prison office was to his mom, Barbara Tillis, who lives in Rialto. He recalls crying uncontrollably, but Tillis took the news in stride. That’s because she actually found out hours earlier, when Ivanka Trump called her in the middle of the night. She told him Anthony Alegrete was there, ready to bring him home.
A new fight
In prison, Cooper’s bunk was taped with a newspaper clipping about the “40 tons” of marijuana tied to his case. Over those years, Cooper said, it was hard for him to contain his frustration at being sent away for life for selling marijuana while reading stories about cannabis becoming legalized in state after state.
“There ain’t no way in the world that can be fair,” he said.
Even before he got out, he was using social media to work with the Alegretes and promote the 40 Tons brand, as he tried to turn that nearly unbearable weight into something positive.
Now, Cooper’s days are filled with speaking engagements and podcast interviews, networking lunches and strategy meetings with other companies and organizations that also are focused on freeing cannabis prisoners and helping those most affected by the war on drugs gain a toe-hold in the cannabis industry.
“It’s a lot of hustle,” he said. “This is my job now.”
Cooper is the owner of the 40 Tons clothing line, throwing back to the clothing company he was building before he was locked up. There are “breaking the chains” track suits modeled by Cooper and a limited edition bomber jacket with “forty tons” in graffiti font.
The website also is selling $30 t-shirts to benefit several men serving long sentences for marijuana — including Parker Coleman, who is serving a 60-year sentence for his connection to Cooper’s case. Profits from the sale of each shirt go to support the men still behind bars.
“The bigger we get the bigger they become, because they’re coming with us,” Cooper said.
Cooper also is brand ambassador for the company’s cannabis accessories. Once he’s off parole, he hopes to help develop a 40 Tons cannabis strain and to have a large indoor grow licensed in his native Los Angeles.
But he notes that it’s increasingly difficult to break into the legal cannabis industry, particularly for people of color, who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Numerous studies have found that even though Black, Latino and White people consume and sell cannabis at similar rates, Latinos and Blacks were much more likely to be arrested for marijuana felonies. That left a world of people of color with criminal records and without financial security — a key barrier when it can cost millions to start a licensed cannabis business.
“It’s impossible to get in the game,” Cooper said.
“Us in the Black and Brown communities, not only did we help promote the so-called drug, we put it on the map,” he said.
“For us to get the most damaged by it, and the most effected by it, it’s like, wait a minute, we’re the heart of it.”
Cooper said in some cities, like New York, social justice programs aimed at re-calibrating the playing field for the cannabis industry seem to be working pretty well. But not so in Los Angeles. “So far,” he said, “… I’m seeing empty words.”
Meanwhile, he added, long sentences are still being handed out for cannabis crimes if the defendant has prior offenses.
“It’s still going on right now, as we speak,” he said. “It’s not over with just because I came home.
“I got a clemency,” he added. “I didn’t get off because of the law changing.”
Support and challenges at home
Adjusting to life at home has presented its own challenges, including learning how to be a father to growing girls.
Cooper’s oldest daughter, Cleer, is 15 and his youngest, Scotlyn, is 12. He hadn’t seen them in a year and a half before he got out, since it was tough for them to travel to Louisiana for visits.
But he recently got to help Scotlyn get braces she’d been wanting for several years. And one of his favorite days as a free man came when he wore a full suit and chauffeur’s hat to take his daughters to dinner at a seafood restaurant.
“Every time I’m going to pick them up I really get excited,” he said. “It’s a whole thing. They’re the win for me.”
Cooper doesn’t talk to the girls about his time behind bars, or about how he wound up there.
“I try to act like it doesn’t exist,” he said.
Instead, he said he focuses on what’s ahead for all of them. With his partner, Evelyn LaChapelle, those conversations are easier.
LaChapelle was sentenced to 87 months in prison for her role in the North Carolina case, even though she had no prior record. LaChapelle now has her own cannabis accessory company — 87. Like Cooper does with his business, LaChappelle is hoping to use 87, in part, for social justice. She uses the company to amplify the voices of other women who served time in prison for cannabis.
“We’re kind of coming up together,” Cooper said.