While the passage of the Cannabis Regulation Act is certainly something New Mexicans should celebrate, it’s important to remember that, as you read this, millions of people in this country are locked in cages for something we’ll soon be able to do freely on the streets.
Andrew and Steve DeAngelo have been working tirelessly to free these unjustly imprisoned individuals and help them rebuild their lives through the Last Prisoner Project. The organization has become the leading voice in the expungement movement.
The Rolling Paper: Can you describe the Last Prisoner Project’s programs and goals?
Andrew DeAngelo: The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Our primary mission is to get every last cannabis prisoner out of jail all over the world—not just in the United States. We do that through three main areas of work: One is getting people out of prison. We usually do that with commutations and pardons, because most of our people have already been convicted. In some cases we might help someone who’s got an active case, if we can find the legal support and our networks to do that. But by and large, we’re trying to get folks out.
The second thing we do is work on expungement and reentry, because those two things are closely connected. If you have a criminal record, it’s very difficult to get housing, get an education, get a loan, to get a job even, so we work very hard on reentry programs run by former prisoners that are our constituents. We’re very proud that prisoners are running that program and actually leading it and developing their leadership skills while they do it inside our organization.
The third thing we do is is reintegration. We try to get folks jobs in the cannabis industry, educate them and train them. That program hasn’t gotten funded quite as well as we would like. We’ve done a few small pilot programs regionally or locally in certain areas, but that that’s one program that we’re still raising money for.
The last thing I’ll add to that is we do have a 501(c)(4) in the works that will be our policy arm. Our policy wing will be working on laws, making it easier to expunge records, making arguments to make sure the federal framework helps get our people out as fast and in as big a number all at once as we can.
Steve: I’ll just give you a little glimpse into the origin story, which took place in 2017. Like a lot of California cannabis business leaders, I found myself in the financial district in Toronto looking for capital. I found myself one afternoon at the top floor of a very impressive office building, sitting at a very impressive conference table with some very impressive people, and we had been looking at some very impressive business plans and projections that involved a lot of money. And towards the end of the day, my phone starts buzzing. It’s my buddy Chuck calling from Pennsylvania where he’s been imprisoned for four years for transporting 14 pounds of cannabis from California to Pennsylvania. So I ducked out into the hallway to take the call, and it’s grim, because it’s grim to talk to your friend when they’re in prison.
I come back into the room, feeling that grimness still, and I was really struck by the difference of what I was feeling and the feeling in the room. Everybody was excited. Nobody was worried about getting arrested. We were looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in planned cannabis activity sitting there on that one table, and I just knew at that moment that I had to do something—that I couldn’t let Chuck sit there in prison while I was potentially making intergenerational wealth for myself and other people without doing something to get him out.
During the presidential campaign, VP Harris promised to make marijuana decriminalization a priority for the Biden administration. Recently, she indicated that the administration has more pressing concerns. What do you think is the likelihood that they’ll deliver on their promise?
Andrew: My brother and I are pretty skeptical both the Biden and Harris administration just because we lived under the governance of Harris when she was attorney general, and we learned very directly what her true feelings are about cannabis. Now, people do evolve and politicians do evolve. I certainly hope Biden and Harris have evolved. But how you define priority is important in this context. For Steve and I, the priority’s very high. We’ve got people in prison; we’ve got this disparity; we’ve got the whole issue of social equity; we have a historical war in which our people have been victimized for over a century. So for us this is a bigger priority.
Steve: It’s the same routine that the Democrats have been feeding us for election after election after election. During the campaign, they love us, they recognize the historic wrong, they’re going to right the wrong. Then they get elected. And we hear the story: “We just got elected. We have all of these really high priorities we need to take care of first. You guys just wait a little bit and we’ll get to you.”
A year, year and a half into the administration, you knock on their door and say, “Yo, what about us?” and they’re like, “Oh, we love you guys. We appreciate your support so much. But you know the midterms are coming up, and it’s just not the right time.” Well, then the next reelection campaign is on the horizon, and it’s the same jive.
How can our readers help the movement?
Steve: Go to lastprisonerproject.org and engage in some way. Follow us on socials. Help us amplify the message. Write us a little check. If you work in the industry, there’s a bunch of industry programs that your employer can participate in. Help us help our constituents rebuild their lives.