Releasing prisoners with cannabis convictions vital in light of COVID-19

The Last Prisoner Project: release prisoners with cannabis convictions

Steve DeAneglo, founder of the Last Prisoner Project, speaks about the urgent need for the release of prisoners with cannabis convictions in light of COVID-19.

Whilst over 40,000 prisoners in the United States sit in a cell on cannabis convictions, many people across the country are now making millions in the legal industry.

Over the last decade alone there has been 15 million arrests in the country resulting in cannabis convictions, yet the legal cannabis industry in the United States makes in excess of $10.4bn a year through sales. The Last Prisoner Project is seeking to correct this injustice by helping to release cannabis prisoners through its coalition of industry leaders and artists.

Medical Cannabis Network editor and journalist, Stephanie Price, spoke to the Last Prisoner Project founder, cannabis activist, and ‘father’ of the legal cannabis industry, Steve DeAngelo, about the project’s goals, and why the COVID-19 pandemic has turned an issue of restorative justice into an issue of life and death.

The birth of the Last Prisoner Project

DeAngelo has been a cannabis activist his whole life and has pioneered the legal industry in the USA – despite facing constant setbacks from Federal shutdowns.

The Last Prisoner Project was born when DeAngelo received a call from a friend incarcerated on cannabis charges whilst he was sat in a boardroom with people making millions for doing the same thing.

DeAngelo said: “We had been spending the day looking at projections and talking about tonnes and tonnes of cannabis, and hundreds of millions of dollars – and of course nobody in that room had any fear or apprehension that they would be arrested.

“My friend called who was serving a four-year sentence for arranging the import of 14 pounds of cannabis. When I went back into the conference room I was struck by the disparity of sadness from my friend, and joy from the people in the room who were doing exactly the same thing. Of course, my friend did it in much smaller quantities.

“Thousands and thousands of people are now benefitting from the legal industry and we have a moral imperative to make sure those in prison for doing the same thing are released.

“I realised there was a great opportunity here – not many justice movements have the ability to draw from one of the fastest growing industries in the world, and given the role I have played in the growth and birth of the industry, I am in a unique position to do that.”

COVID-19 should not be a death sentence

The USA has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world. Couple that with the highest number of incarcerated citizens and the scale of the problem of COVID-19 spreading within prisons becomes abundantly clear. As the individual review of cannabis convictions takes time, the release of prisoners could take much too long if they are to be protected from the virus.

DeAngelo said: “Our view is that you don’t need to go through a whole process for cannabis prisoners. Anyone who is locked up on cannabis charges is someone who is not a criminal in the first place and is someone who should never have been arrested.

“So, now what is happening is that those people are facing possible death sentences and, in some cases, have probably already received death sentences. Tracking and getting accurate data can be very difficult but we know that there have been many deaths of prisoners already. It is quite likely that one of those prisoners was incarcerated for cannabis related crimes.

“The idea that somebody should receive a death sentence for cannabis in this day and age is just appalling, so we have been doing everything we possibly can to encourage the release of these prisoners.”

Releasing prisoners with cannabis convictions

Currently, the USA has the highest number of incarcerated citizens in the world. The number of people arrested for cannabis law violations in 2018 was 663,367.

DeAngelo said: “We see our mission as being global, so understanding the scope of the problem was more complicated than we thought. Fortunately, in the US there is a lot of criminal justice reform organisations tackling different parts of the problem. The governor of each state has an executive power to grant clemency to prisoners incarcerated in their state correctional system for whatever reason the governor wants, and in a state where cannabis has already been made legal, we believe it is not much of a political leap to issue clemency to cannabis prisoners.”

The Last Prisoner Project has engaged its clemency programme to persuade governors in states where cannabis is legal to give blanket clemency to prisoners with cannabis convictions.

“As we have 40,000 cases up for review this will take a long time – so we want prisoners released immediately if they meet certain conditions. We are now working to develop a set of parameters that would deem prisoners eligible for clemency, such as never having sold drugs to a minor, or sold substances other than cannabis.” DeAngelo said.

The project is also working in partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers to mobilise a small army of attorneys who will work with each individual prisoner’s set of documents, as each petition requires hours of legal work.

Rebuilding lives

The Last Prisoner Project also wants to rebuild peoples lives. This includes a six-week programme to train recently released prisoners in the basics of the legal cannabis industry, which is to be piloted in Ohio and California. The project already has employers lined up to hire participants of the programme.

A member of the Last Prisoner Project board, Evelyn Lachapelle, is a recently released federal prisoner and has a typical story, said De Angelo, “Evelyn had allowed a friend of hers to use her bank account to deposit proceed from cannabis sales, and in 2013 this operation was taken down by the federal government. Evelyn was charged along with a number of co-defendants, however, she had never touched the cannabis, she had never left the state of California, and never done anything other than allow someone to use her account.

“She had been to university, had graduated, gotten married, had a child and had a job in her field and was progressing nicely in her career when she was convicted on federal charges and was sentenced to seven years. So, she was a young woman who was taken from her three-year-old child, pulled away from her family, taken out of a good productive job where she was paying taxes and taking care of her family and shipped all the way across the country to be locked up in prison for more than five years.”

The disproportionate impact of prohibition on minorities

DeAngelo emphasised how this case highlights the disproportionate effect of drug prohibition laws on ethnic minorities. He said: “If Evelyn was white this would not have happened.

“There is a huge number of ethnic minorities people within these prisons, and if you look at the history of law enforcement in the US, it was slave catchers formerly. That is how it started and now it has been the basis of the tradition of American law enforcement, which grew out of slave catching. That racism still deeply infects the criminal justice system.”

A total of 46.9% of those arrested in the USA on drug charges are black or Latino.

Renowned reggae artists, Damian and Stephen Marley (sons of Bob Marley), and Peter Tosh, are all supporting the project. Tosh has had his own experience of the impact of drug prohibition laws.

DeAngelo said: “They are all so helpful for supporting the project. Peter Tosh’s youngest son – Jawara Mcintosh – was arrested a few years ago in New Jersey on cannabis charges and sentenced to five years in state prison. About 30 days after being incarcerated he was beaten, almost fatally, by another inmate. He was provisionally released to his family in a non-verbal condition which requires 24-hour care, he has now been home for quite some time.

“While everybody hopes to see some signs of improvement, he is still unable to communicate, and if he improves and he becomes healthy he will be put back in prison. This is again on charges for the amount of cannabis you can fit in a suitcase – at a time when you have publicly traded companies that have up to £250m dollar investments in cannabis and nobody on the board of directors of these groups are worrying about whether or not they are going to be locked up.

“Niambe Tosh – Jawara’s older sister – and the Tosh Foundation have also become supporters. This is an issue that strikes a chord with people because the injustice is so manifest. Even before the virus, it has been mostly white people creating intergenerational wealth, while at the same time black and brown people are suffering for the same thing. It is a very clear and manifest injustice, but now because of the virus it has moved from an issue of restorative justice to an issue of life and death.”

DeAngelo continued: “Our message is very simple – we want all cannabis prisoners to be released to save their lives. We think it should happen immediately.

“We will not stop or rest until the last cannabis prisoner comes home to their families. It would be a huge injustice to create this billion-dollar industry and do nothing to fix this injustice to get our prisoners home.

“We will succeed in this mission – I intend to keep on working on it until I am taken out of this life.”

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