The legalization of cannabis, while not perfect, has largely been beneficial to the varied community of people who enjoy the herb. New business and employment opportunities have opened up, the variety of products has increased, and millions of people in legal jurisdictions have the peace of mind that comes with knowing you won’t be locked up for holding a little bit of weed.
But our justice system has failed to keep pace with the realities of legalization. Although some states have been proactive about releasing or resentencing pot prisoners and clearing their records, others have made attaining relief from a criminal record a chore. And the federal government has largely ignored the legalization movement and continues to imprison people, often for decades, for marijuana-related offenses. But the arrests and convictions aren’t just crime statistics. They also represent real women and men—people like Weldon Angelos, who was an up-and-coming music producer who had worked with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur when his life was upended by the War on Drugs nearly 20 years ago.
In 2003, Angelos was a 24-year-old father of two when he was sent to prison for 55 years for selling less than $1,000 worth of marijuana to an informant. Alarmed at the sentence the nation’s drug laws forced him to impose on the young, nonviolent offender, Paul Cassell, the federal judge in his case, eventually left the bench over the injustice. Despite his tough-on-crime reputation, he also made public pleas for Angelos’ release. The case became a symbol for the excesses of the American criminal justice system, gaining the attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers and celebrities including Snoop and Alicia Keys, who all joined in a chorus of dissent. The calls for clemency were eventually heard, and Angelos was released from prison in 2016 after spending 13 years behind bars. In December 2020, then-President Donald Trump issued Angelos a full pardon.
Planting the Seeds for Mission Green
After his release from prison, Angelos became a vocal advocate for those still behind bars due to the excesses of the federal justice system, including mandatory minimum sentences and Section 924(c), the federal law that resulted in his 55-year sentence. The sentence was imposed because a police informant testified Angelos had a firearm strapped to his ankle when the marijuana transactions occurred, although there was no evidence that he had ever used or brandished the gun.
In 2018, the efforts of reform advocates including Angelos resulted in the passage of the First Step Act, which provides a path to early release for deserving federal prisoners. More than 3,000 inmates qualified for early release the year after the bill was passed, a number that grew to more than 7,500 by July 2022, according to the Justice Department.
In a virtual interview, Angelos characterizes the First Step Act as “probably the most comprehensive reform since 1970.” With passage of the bill secured, Angelos decided to turn his attention to those who, like him, were imprisoned over weed. He formed The Weldon Project, an organization funding social change and financial aid for those who are behind bars for cannabis-related offenses. Marshaling the assistance of a broad coalition of lawmakers, entertainers, and thought leaders, The Weldon Project launched Mission Green, the group’s first initiative to address the harms of cannabis prohibition.
“We decided to form the Weldon Project and our first initiative was project Mission Green that would work with the White House on cannabis clemency issues. We wanted to make sure that this group of offenders wasn’t passed over again,” Angelos remembers. “And so we worked with the last few years of the Trump administration to get a number of individuals who were serving life in prison for cannabis clemency, as well as other people that were serving lengthy sentences.”
In the waning hours of his presidency, Trump pardoned 74 people and commuted the sentences of another 70, including many who had been convicted of cannabis offenses. The Weldon Project continued its work into the next administration, calling on President Joseph Biden to honor his campaign commitment to end incarceration for marijuana crimes. Last year, The Weldon Project sent a letter signed by more than 150 artists, athletes, lawmakers, reform advocates, and policy experts, as well as leaders in business, law enforcement, and academia, calling for clemency for cannabis prisoners. The letter urges the president to use his authority “to grant a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to all persons subject to federal criminal or civil enforcement on the basis of non-violent marijuana offenses.”
“The Mission Green Initiative is really focused on freeing people who are stuck in the federal prison system for cannabis offenses through presidential clemency as well as compassionate release,” Angelos explains.
The group also has programs to help cannabis prisoners while they are still behind bars and initiatives to help the families waiting for them to return home.
“We started working on a commissary program that helps support individuals who are serving lengthy sentences for cannabis so they can have the basic essentials that the prison doesn’t provide, like hygiene products, communication with your family and food and whatnot,” says Angelos. “And so that was really the inspiration behind Mission Green, which we started in 2018.”
“We’re also looking to start supporting the families of people that are incarcerated because when the bread-winner goes to jail, the kids suffer,” he adds. “So we want to start supporting them.”
Weed Is Legal, Except When It Isn’t
Much of the outcry over the plight of cannabis prisoners centers on the dichotomy of the American legal system’s approach to weed. Many people see the dual reality of men and women sitting in prison for selling herb while others, including multinational corporations, move billions of dollars worth of weed every year as a stark injustice. Angelos agrees, adding that companies and individuals who are making money in the regulated cannabis market have a responsibility to help those imprisoned for marijuana-related offenses.
“Anybody that’s profiting from cannabis has a duty to step up and do something about the people that paved the way for legalization,” he says emphatically. “A lot of these stories, I call them horror stories, helped push the needle in favor of reform.”
Many cannabis industry business owners and executives have accepted that responsibility. Some of the industry’s most recognizable brands, including Cookies, Cresco Labs, and Flower One have signed on as sponsors. Support from Glass House came in the form of a $25,000 donation and service on the organization’s board of directors by Kyle Kazan, the CEO of the California company. Graham Farrar, Glass House president, also believes the regulated industry has a duty to help.
“I think as an industry, as a company, we have an obligation to connect the flywheel of our success to stop the wrongs of the drug war and try and repair some of the wrongs of the past,” he tells me.
Farrar adds that the drug war not only failed to accomplish its goals, it destroyed or disrupted an untold number of lives.
“The War on Drugs is bullshit,” he says bitterly. “More and more people recognize that every day. We realize it was never a War on Drugs. It was a war on people.”
Wilfred Maina, account coordinator at NisonCo, a cannabis-centric public relations firm, believes that all companies working in the regulated cannabis industry, not just the ones actually selling weed, have a responsibility to help those who have been sent to prison for marijuana offenses.
“It is simply unjust to financially benefit from an industry that still puts people in jail in some cases or places, not others. Until cannabis has become federally regulated and everyone incarcerated for a nonviolent cannabis crime is exonerated, the private and nonprofit sectors must work together to right this wrong,” Maina wrote in an email to High Times. “Ancillary cannabis companies, just like plant-touching ones, directly benefit from legacy knowledge and hard-fought advocacy efforts. Without the illicit market, there would be no legitimate market.”
The Weldon Project and Mission Green have succeeded in assembling a broad coalition of lawmakers, entertainers, athletes, reform advocates, and business leaders to address the injustice of harsh prison sentences for marijuana crimes. But reaching the ultimate goal of freeing those men and women also requires the support of everyday people, especially those in the cannabis community who enjoy the fruits of their labors and sacrifice. Donations to the Weldon Project are always welcome, but people also have the power to act.
“They can speak out against it,” Angelos says, encouraging all to get involved. “They can share stories of people who are incarcerated and success stories of people who get out and actually do good. Or they can reach out to their members of Congress and demand change, reach out to the president and demand intervention for these people who are still sitting in prison to this day.”