As the U.S. begins waking up to the tragedy that our prisons are filled with inmates who did little to land in jail besides sell — or possess — a little bit of weed, non-profits and legal-defense organizations are stepping up efforts to get those inmates freed.
The possession, sale, and growing of cannabis for recreational and/or medicinal use is now legal in nearly three dozen states in some form. And just given that fact, it is unconscionable that hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people remain in prison, sometimes on decades-long sentences, for drug crimes stemming from marijuana. Learn more about Social Equity Brands at SPARC.
Recognizing this injustice and the urgent need for reform, longtime cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo founded the Last Prisoner Project in 2019 with his brother, Andrew DeAngelo, and Dean Raise. The group is on a mission to exonerate and free the approximately 40,000 non-violent offenders sitting in U.S. jails for cannabis-related crimes, and DeAngelo wants to get the money and influence of the modern-day legal cannabis industry to put its full weight behind this mission.
DeAngelo says that he was inspired to start the Last Prisoner Project after sitting in the conference room of a high-rise office building, discussing financial and production projections for the first few years of legal cannabis in California with bankers and other brokers and pot entrepreneurs like himself. Following the meeting, he got a call from a friend, Chuck Cox, who is serving four years in a Pennsylvania prison for transporting 14 pounds of marijuana.
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“I was just struck by the disparity of sitting at the table with people, and we were talking about tons of legal cannabis, and nobody at that table had the slightest fear of any kind of legal intervention,” DeAngelo said, speaking to Esquire last year. “Meanwhile, my friend Chuck is sitting in prison behind bars for a very, very tiny fraction of the amount of cannabis that we were talking about.”
DeAngelo spent a little bit of time behind bars himself during the course of his career as a medical marijuana advocate and dispensary owner. Known as the “Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry,” he co-founded Oakland-based dispensary Harborside in 2006 with his brother and has been central to the legalization fight since the 1990s.
But he recognizes the privilege that allowed him to become a successful figure in the legal industry, while others he knew in the weed world and elsewhere ended up as felons.
“I’ve had that experience of hearing that barred door lock behind you and being in that confined space and being taken away from your loved ones,” he told Esquire, acknowledging that his total time spent in jail only amounted to about a year of his life.
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The prisoner-advocacy space when it comes to cannabis crimes is growing steadily, and includes other like-minded organizations and programs. Leading the fight on the law side is the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project, which published a landmark report this year titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” detailing how enforcement of marijuana laws costs the U.S. around $3.6 billion per year, and how these laws had led to over-policing of Black and brown people, and over 8 million arrests between 2001 and 2010.
Cage-Free Cannabis, another advocacy organization that was co-founded by Andrew Epstein, the brother of advocate Ricki Lake‘s film production partner Abby Epstein, is also working to achieve reparative and economic justice for those harmed by the War on Drugs. The group raises funds and engages cannabis businesses to help with getting inmates’ criminal records expunged, and providing economic opportunities for them post-prison.
In a similar vein, Freedom Grow, a non-profit founded by formerly incarcerated, San Francisco-based cannabis grower Stephanie Landa, sends money, books, and letters to around 100 incarcerated inmates serving time for non-violent, cannabis-related crimes.
“I’m optimistic about the trajectory of ending the War on Drugs,” said Adam Vine, co-founder of Cage-Free Cannabis during an event last November that the organization sponsored, National Expungement Week. “However, I’m concerned about the pace of the change. I think widespread and rapid relief is needed. I think that for people who have convictions on their records, those convictions continue to restrict their access to full and successful lives.”
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