Bernard Noble

Bernard Noble

A state board has approved parole for Bernard Noble, the New Orleans man whose original 13-year sentence for possessing two joints' worth of marijuana became a cause célèbre for opponents of the war on drugs.

Three Louisiana Parole Board members voted this month to release Noble, who has served seven years behind bars after being convicted as a habitual offender.

Noble’s attorney, Jee Park, said she expects him to be freed within a few weeks. He must first return to his post-Hurricane Katrina residence in Missouri as a condition of his parole, but he hopes eventually to rejoin relatives in New Orleans, she said.

“I’m really pleased that Bernard is finally able to go home to his family. He’s done an incredibly long sentence for two joints of marijuana,” Park said.

Noble, 51, was visiting family in town in October 2010 when a New Orleans police officer spotted him riding his bike the wrong way down a street. The officer stopped and frisked him, discovering less than 3 grams of marijuana.

That amount of marijuana would have resulted in a sentence of time served for most defendants. But Noble had a long rap sheet for drug offenses, making him eligible for much stiffer penalties under Louisiana law.

Noble rejected an offer of a plea deal for a five-year sentence from the office of Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. After a six-person jury convicted him in 2011, prosecutors charged him as a multiple offender.

Although two state judges tried to sentence Noble to five years in prison, prosecutors fought to have a 13.3-year sentence imposed. They appealed to the state Supreme Court and succeeded.

In 2016, however, Cannizzaro’s office had a change of heart. Prosecutors agreed to cut Noble’s sentence to eight years in prison, making him eligible for parole much sooner. The shorter term followed the guidelines of new marijuana sentencing laws that were passed partly in response to Noble’s case.

In between Noble’s original trial and his resentencing, the case became a rallying cry for opponents of stringent marijuana laws. It drew notice in Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, the Huffington Post and The New York Times.

Anthony Papa, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Noble’s case aroused the ire of advocates across the country.

“Thirteen years for two marijuana cigarettes? Totally ridiculous. So he became a symbol of what is wrong with the war on drugs,” Papa said.

Despite the national spotlight, Park said the hearing this month was a routine affair that focused mostly on Noble’s spotless disciplinary record. Noble has also completed two substance abuse treatment programs in prison, she said.

“Given the fact that this was a nonviolent drug offense, and given the fact that he had done seven years of his eight-year sentence, in many ways this was a no-brainer release case,” she said.

As a triple offender, Noble would not have been eligible for parole until the criminal justice reforms passed by the Legislature last year, according to Park.

The District Attorney’s Office did not take a position on Noble’s parole application.

“We hope that Mr. Noble has been able to resolve his substance-abuse issues and will lead a law-abiding life free of further involvement in the criminal justice system,” Cannizzaro said in a statement.

Park said Noble has not seen his family in about a year because he is being held in a medium-security prison in Bossier Parish, an almost six-hour drive from New Orleans.

The Parole Board order releasing Noble requires him to check in with parole agents in Kansas City, Missouri — his residence after Hurricane Katrina — before he can return to New Orleans, Park said. She is arranging temporary housing for him in Missouri.

Noble, the father of seven children, is looking forward to reconnecting with his family, Park said.

“The last seven years have been really hard for him, so I think there’s going to be a transition for him back into his life as he knew it before he went to prison,” she said. “He’s just feeling like he’s missed so much of his kids’ lives.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432