She’s a white weed bitch. She listens to Snoop Dogg half-ironically while zoning out in Whoopi Goldberg’s THC/CBD-infused menstrual soak, and she would never attend Coachella without a glimmering gold Firefly vape in hand (or fanny pack). She got into CBD briefly, when everyone else did, but now has reverted back to the hard stuff. She’s never been punished for smoking pot, unless you count that one time her mom found her stash and grounded her. And he, his pockets lined with capital rich for the investing, is seeking a new opportunity in the burgeoning legal cannabis market, where he recognizes a gold mine when he sees it. She’s going to buy what his money funds, at a California dispensary perhaps, or at whatever retail system Illinois cooks up. No one above the law will bat an eye. But outside this sparkling clean weed bubble are people still stuck below the law, sitting in prison for nonviolent offenses that are no longer illegal. They can’t make money off this new legal market. They can’t even go home. Cannabis, for all its promise in America, has never been the cause of more inequality.
The transfer of money: That’s what it took for Eric Rachmany, front man of the reggae band Rebelution, to start to feel angry about weed. Not angry like that weed bitch’s mom. He’d been smoking the stuff since he was a teen in San Francisco, when listening to the reggae greats showed him that marijuana didn’t send you barreling down the road to destruction. It could, he found, be a spiritual tool to achieve a higher level of consciousness, a stronger connection to the earth, and also a damn good cure for what ailed him. Angry because it was his band’s success that made selling marijuana products under the Rebelution name a possibility at all, which prompted him to face an uncomfortable truth.
Today, Rachmany and his band are profiting off the legal marijuana industry when not 10 years ago, that would’ve been called drug dealing, and it could’ve landed them in jail. “It makes me angry thinking that there are people locked away for cannabis offenses, nonviolent cannabis offenses,” Rachmany told me this fall. “But instead of just being angry, I think the best way to go about this is to raise funds for these people that need to get out of prison.” Enter Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Steve DeAngelo, the so-called “father” of the cannabis industry and founder of several cannabis businesses, his brother Andrew DeAngelo, and Dean Raise, aiming to advocate for the freedom of these prisoners. Rachmany eagerly joined its board as an advisor, along with other marijuana-adjacent celebrities like Stephen and Damian Marley, as well as ambassadors like Melissa Etheridge and Willie Nelson, all who have their own cannabis projects.
Last Prisoner Project emerged from a kind of ugliness of the cannabis industry: Depending on which state and which year (as well as what color your skin is, in many cases) you ate an edible, lit a blunt, or hit a bong, doing that exact thing could give you a jail sentence or be a complete nonissue. At this writing, as legalization criss-crosses the country, thousands sit in jail cells for nonviolent marijuana offenses, some even for life sentences, because they bought or sold the stuff, transported it across state lines, or possessed it before legalization.
So, yes, it’s a very uncomfortable reality, but it’s also repairable to an extent. Last Prisoner Project’s goal—to free all of these nonviolent offenders, which is estimated to be at least 40,000 across the U.S. (the exact number is difficult to pin down)—will help cut deep into the system, if successful. And it’ll do it by using resources already embedded in that system, from celebrities to industry leaders to ex-cons to cannabis-using laymen like you, me, cool moms in Colorado, curious dads in Michigan, and that weed bitch in California.
Weed is a booming industry in the United States. It’s attracting Wall Street financiers and celebrity star power. Dispensaries look like Apple stores, while cannabis companies build twee little websites that urge consumers to forget marijuana’s formerly dingy, unlawful vibes. Former House Speaker and anti-weed politician John Boehner became a marijuana pitchman when a potential $ 20 million paycheck was on the line. In the House, a bill to decriminalize marijuana federally and expunge records of marijuana convictions made it past an important committee vote in late 2019. In more states that have actually legalized recreational weed, many criminal records have been or will be expunged. But before decriminalization started kicking in, American law enforcement was rounding up marijuana growers and users, and historically far more from minority groups, and slapping them with criminal charges.
It’s an unfairness that hit home for DeAngelo one afternoon in a meeting with bankers and brokers as they prepared to expand into California’s new legal market. In a tall office building with beautiful views, he and these other powerful people made their business projections for the next couple of years, talking “literally tons and tons of cannabis being cultivated,” DeAngelo recalls, “and very large amounts of money attached to that.” Not long after, DeAngelo says, he got a call from his buddy Chuck Cox, from a correctional facility in Pennsylvania where Cox was serving a four-year sentence for transporting 14 pounds of cannabis.
“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,” he says. “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’s sense of activism had come from his first cannabis, ingested at age 13 to life-changing effect, and the resulting realization that with the way things were, if he wanted cannabis in his future in any sort of way, he’d have to choose to live a criminal life, which he wasn’t too keen on. He has since been arrested a few times, though his jail time wasn’t more than a year of his life—“but 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 says.
DeAngelo was also embedded in the cannabis community early on, where grassroots organizing at the hands of people with little to no entrepreneurial power or privilege was bound to rub off. As such, Last Prisoner Project’s mission statement echoes decades of activism focused on criminal justice, legalization, and racial inequality, and shares goals a handful of other like-minded groups that straddle the business and prisoner-advocacy spheres, like Cage-Free Cannabis and Freedom Grow. In the retail sphere on its own, Seth Rogen’s new cannabis brand Houseplant is partnered with Cannabis Amnesty in Canada, while Think BIG, the cannabis company started by CJ Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G.’s son, supports California’s Prison Arts Project and NORML. The MedMen dispensary chain partnered with Jesse Williams and Spike Jonze last year to put out a commercial drawing attention to racial injustices. So the Green Boom has a philanthropic shadow, but still, the legal industry is just too new, too buzzy for some folks to be well versed on the darker issues.
As we try to catch up, Last Prisoner Project officially launched with DeAngelo, current and former marijuana prisoners, lawyers, CEOs, and celebs at its helm in September with a many-many-pronged approach, but one that mostly wants to ensure the legal weed industry “actually serves the interests of people who have a relationship with this plant,” he says. That is, not just hedge fund investors and wealthy entrepreneurs swooping into to legal states to chase the next wellness trend.
Thing is, some of those people still need to get out of jail. The steps Last Prisoner Project has taken to that end so far include, but are not limited to (and pardon the laundry list): partnering with national criminal defense organizations to create and staff a clemency program to secure pardons for prisoners across the country; getting the medical marijuana company Harvest Health & Recreation to sponsor a reentry program into the cannabis industry for released prisoners; creating a Partners for Freedom program for consumer-facing cannabis companies in which they funnel funds to Last Prisoner Project in exchange for a Last Prisoner Project stamp of approval on their products; and locking down a list of major cannabis company donors and partnering with institutions like High Times.
Last Prisoner Project isn’t the first group to try to get nonviolent offenders free, but it’s probably the most connected, thanks to DeAngelo, with a plan that asks—and so far, successfully—for the support of growers, manufacturers, companies big and small, dispensaries, lawyers, nonprofits, consumers, and more. “I felt it was really, given that position that I had, it was my obligation to do that,” DeAngelo says.
Celeb advocacy from the likes of Rachmany, Willie and Lukas Nelson, not to mention Jim Belushi, Talib Kweli, Redman, Susan Sarandon, and Doug Benson, is intended to actually help prisoners (many of whom went to jail before celebrity strains of cannabis were even a thing). Damian Marley, the youngest son of Bob Marley and a four-time Grammy-winning reggae artist, is another such celebrity. His family sells cannabis through its company Marley Natural, among other cannabis-related ventures, plus a Marley musical legacy built around the culture of cannabis and the rights of people who smoke it. Business and artistry aside though, he says his criminal justice advocacy is built on the Rasta belief in marijuana as a spiritual sacrament. “I would be involved in it if I was a carpenter,” he says.
As an advisor for Last Prisoner Project with his half-brother and sometimes musical collaborator Stephen, Marley considers it is his responsibility to be a voice on behalf of the prisoners, to talk to journalists like me, so he can educate voters in the U.S. (cannabis consumers or otherwise) on the issue who can then demand action from their representatives.
“I think they’re becoming aware,” he says of the voting public. “I think there’s much more awareness now than there was definitely 10 years ago, but there’s still more work to be done.”
For his part, Rachmany went on tour last month doing 12 acoustic sets of Rebelution’s greatest hits for the biggest fans—“It’s just a big singalong,” he says—with all of the money made going to Last Prisoner Project. “It feels good to give back,” he continues. “And I think that the listeners, the fans, are all very supportive of this venture in getting these prisoners out.”
There’s a heap of irony in relying on rich people—actors, musicians, business leaders—to fix systematic inequality. But when the alternatives here are pretty much limited to traveling back in time to the ’70s to knee-cap the War on Drugs before it could get going, it’s somewhat hard to see a downside. Justice systems will save money and resources. Celebrities get to spread positive vibes. Cannabis companies get good PR, no doubt about it, but not for free. Marijuana users can pinpoint companies doing good by prisoners with Last Prisoner Project through seals on products, social media, and more, and buy their marijuana accordingly. And fundamentally, former prisoners can have their records expunged, their lives restarted as best they possibly can be after years-long detours through the American legal system. It’s not like politicians alone, at least the ones we’re stuck with, could get that done.
The industry is ready to put money where its guilt is. “It’s a groundswell,” DeAngelo says. “People are realizing that you don’t keep on punishing people for something that’s not a crime anymore.”
Is Last Prisoner Project able to free 40,000, or more? Marley thinks so. As a kid, he never thought he’s see the day that he could walk into a store in California or Jamaica and buy marijuana, after all. “There’s nothing daunting,” he says. “If we reached that far then, would you say that? No, no. Anything is possible. People make the world go around. People make the decisions that got these guys locked up in the first place, so people can make a decision to let them out.”
Correction: The previous version of this article mistakenly identified Willie Nelson and Melissa Etheridge as “advisors.”