Corrina Fields, a second-grader, sent former President Barack Obama a letter last year outlining all the things she wanted to do with her dad if he got out of prison.
Ride bikes. Go to the park. Play basketball, she said, drawing pictures of each of the activities.
On his last day in the White House, the president granted Corrina her wish, including her father, Paul, among the 310 drug offenders who received clemency as he prepared to leave office. In his two terms, Obama pardoned or commuted the sentences of nearly 2,000 people, mainly nonviolent drug offenders, who he believed were serving sentences that were overly harsh.
“I have so much to make up for when I get home,” Paul told Yahoo News from the federal prison in Virginia where he’s spent the past seven years. “Both to her and my wife.”
Corrina was just 5 months old when her father was busted for growing more than 100 marijuana plants in his basement in Tennessee. He pleaded guilty to manufacturing marijuana and was sentenced to 15 1/2 years. The stiff sentence was triggered by Paul’s prior convictions for possessing — and in one case growing — small amounts of pot. These convictions tipped him into the “career offender” category, which requires judges to hand down the maximum penalty for the crime.
Paul and his wife, Pari, who has stuck by him through his years in prison, both think what he did was stupid and reckless. But they were also shocked that Paul was sent away for so long. They thought such long federal sentences went to drug kingpins — not a small-time amateur trying to make extra cash. Paul met people in prison who were dealing thousands of pounds of marijuana a year. His entire crop would have yielded about 5 pounds, he estimates.
“I am definitely guilty of being a pothead that continued to make stupid decisions with my lifestyle,” Paul wrote in his clemency application.
Before his bust, Paul worked as a manager at a pizza chain restaurant, but his passion was music. He drove hundreds of miles to follow around jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead in his spare time. He met his wife, Pari, at a music festival in 2005, when he struck up a conversation with her between shows. She immediately liked that he seemed smart and kind — two qualities she had been waiting decades to find in a guy.
In 2008, Paul lost his job as manager of the pizza restaurant, and Pari got pregnant with Corrina. They moved to Johnson City, Tenn., in search of work. “We had a baby coming without any income,” Pari recalls. “It was just scary. I think both of us were like, how are we going to pay for stuff?”
Fearing they wouldn’t have enough money to support the baby, Paul decided to try to grow and sell a larger amount of weed than ever before. He had grown pot and sold some to friends in the past, but always in small amounts, mostly to supply himself. Paul often thinks about how in this pivotal moment, he made the wrong choice.
“I should have gone the other way,” he said. “I had a good career in the pizza business.”
Pari, who knew about Paul’s plans but didn’t participate, also regrets not trying to stop him. “I wish I had said when I got pregnant, ‘This is going to have to stop,’” she said. “I was scared about it. I was worried about it all the time.”
In October 2009, law enforcement raided the Fields’ house and found the plants. Paul learned that his close friend, a groomsman at his wedding, had informed on him to receive a lighter sentence for his own growing operation — adding a sense of betrayal to the brew of terrible emotions Paul felt.
“I hadn’t harvested a single plant when the raid happened, and we lost everything,” Paul recalls. “And then I’m staring in the mirror going, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ The most irresponsible thing I could do as a husband and a father.”
When Paul went to jail, Pari sank into a depression for about a year. She had recorded videos of Paul playing with Corrina before he went away so she could show them to her while he was behind bars. And Paul wrote a note to his baby every day, filling notebooks for her. But the reality of parenting alone, with your spouse behind bars, was brutally hard.
“You don’t have anyone to tag out with you,” Pari says.
Pari moved in with Paul’s elderly parents, who helped care for Corrina while Pari went back to school to become an ultrasound technician. They drove two hours each way to visit Paul in federal prison in Jonesville, Va., every other weekend.
While Paul was behind bars, several states legalized recreational marijuana, which has become a multibillion dollar business. Pari visited Colorado and watched people walking into bustling dispensaries to legally buy pot, while she thought of her husband serving more than a decade for growing plants.
“That part of it has been weird,” she says. “I know he broke the law, but I think it’s an excessive amount of time.” One in five Americans now live in states where you can legally smoke weed without a doctor’s note, but the Trump administration has signaled it will more aggressively enforce federal marijuana laws.
In a recent exclusive Yahoo News/Marist Poll, just 30 percent of Americans said they believe the Trump administration should be tougher in enforcing federal laws against the recreational use of marijuana. The plurality of respondents (38 percent) said they believe the new administration should be more lenient, while 27 percent said the administration should continue on the same path as the Obama administration—largely leaving it to the states to decide whether pot is legal or not.
The survey also finds that 83 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes but are divided about whether or not marijuana should be legalized for recreational purposes: 49 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove.
At around age 4 or 5, Corrina started to ask why her father was behind bars. Her parents told her he made a mistake and got in trouble. At times, Pari struggled with her daughter’s behavior. For a period when she was working nights, Corrina started acting out. “She’s definitely angry,” Pari says. “I don’t know if it’s just the age or if she’s angry about him not being there.”
Paul’s attempts to parent from prison were ineffective. “When I would try to talk to her on the phone, saying brush your teeth for her mom, be a good girl tonight, I got the feeling it just went in one ear and out the other,” Paul says. “She knows I’m not there, and she’s a strong-willed little creature.”
Paul was unable to be a disciplinarian from behind bars, but he forged a close relationship with his daughter nonetheless thanks to his wife’s dedication to visiting with her all seven years. Corrina says she can’t wait to hug her dad when he gets home and then play basketball with him.
“I pray every day that we’ll avoid any long-term scarring for her and she’ll have a healthy, happy childhood and grow into the adult I hope she’ll grow into,” Paul says.
Pari never considered leaving Paul, even though he told her he’d understand if she couldn’t wait 15 years.
“I don’t know how people who are single parents have time or energy to date anyone,” she said. “I didn’t even have the desire… I don’t feel like bringing some creepy guy around my kid.” Plus, she says, Paul remained her best friend, even behind bars.
Obama’s final act of clemency on Jan. 19 shaved six years off the time Pari and Corrina will have to wait to be reunited with Paul. The news was shocking to the family, because Paul had been informed three months before his clemency that his application had been denied. Paul still has no idea what made the president or the Department of Justice change their minds about his case.
“It changed everything, just everything,” Pari says of the commutation, crying. She will no longer have to shoulder the economic burden of raising her kid alone and will be able to do simple things like watch a movie and then fight over who does the dishes with her husband.
“Everything’s gone from super hard to there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
Now, Paul will be reunited with his daughter when she’s 8, not 13. He now has nine months of a drug treatment program before release. “That extra five and a half years is just a huge, huge thing in her life, I think,” he says.
Corrina remembers when her dad called from prison and told her mom he was getting released early. “She was crying from excitement,” Corrina says. “When Mommy handed the phone to me I was crying too. We were both excited that Daddy was coming home.”
Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series:
- Americans families defending pot as never before, Yahoo News/Marist Poll finds
- How Republicans and Democrats in Congress are joining forces to defeat Sessions’ war on weed
- Cannabis advocate Melissa Etheridge: ‘I’d much rather have a smoke with my grown kids than a drink’
- These mothers of suicides don’t think marijuana is harmless
- ‘Cannabis has made me a better parent’: One mom’s confession
- Photos: Small pot farms in Northern California thrive amid fears of Big Business
- Why 4/20 became a pot smoker’s holiday