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Oct 03, 2022
As the legal cannabis industry booms, folks are still doing time for marijuana charges — and the nonprofit Last Prisoner Project is on a mission to set them free. “Last Prisoner Project’s constituents are the pioneers of the now burgeoning cannabis industry,” said actor Jim Belushi in an interview with OZY.
– by Seth Ferranti
Two sides to this coin
Stephanie Shepard spent the 2010s watching in amazement as the legal cannabis industry grew state by state, raking in profits. She had plenty of time to think about it: While the world outside was getting high — and marijuana entrepreneurs were getting rich — Shepard was serving a 10-year minimum sentence in federal prison for distributing cannabis, despite being a first-time, nonviolent offender. “What about me?” she wondered. “Here I am. Do you not know that we're still in here, incarcerated for it?” But no one seemed to be coming to set her free.
When Shepard was finally released in 2019, she went to see a fellow former inmate speak at the first fundraiser for the Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a then fledgling nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the release of cannabis prisoners and helping them rebuild their lives. At that event, Shepard realized she had to make sure the world heard prisoners’ stories.
“This is what I need to be doing,” Shepard said. “I don’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt, sitting in prison, watching someone on the news in a story about the booming industry.”
That same year, Mary Bailey, a 20-year veteran of the cannabis business, helped launch LPP because she felt it was a travesty that a legal cannabis industry flourished while tens of thousands of people were still locked up because of a plant that was now legal in over 30 states. Today, the Colorado-based nonprofit, which just celebrated its third birthday, works toward policy change at both the state and federal levels while providing direct support and legal intervention for people incarcerated for cannabis. Of 198 constituents LPP has represented, 87 have been released from prison.
“We have a really wonderful partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,” Bailey told OZY, “and through that partnership we’ve created the Cannabis Justice Initiative.” The program, which matches pro bono attorneys with nonviolent cannabis prisoners, helps those individuals file compassionate release petitions with the goal of reuniting them with their families.
‘People need support’
While public opinion regarding cannabis has shifted dramatically in recent years, legal processes are much slower to swing. Many of the prisoners currently incarcerated on cannabis charges were convicted under sentencing laws that were part of the war on drugs, with mandatory minimum sentences and harsh rules that make it hard to get sentences reduced or overturned, or that prevent prisoners from being released through other avenues.
Those inmates face a tough road. There are many procedural obstacles for those seeking compassionate release. Once a motion or clemency petition has been filed, it can take the courts many months, or even years, to rule on it. And motions can get dismissed for something as simple as missing a step — such as failing to exhaust administrative remedies before petitioning the court, or even for submitting too few copies of required paperwork — that prisoners might not know is part of the procedure.
That’s where LPP comes in. “I feel like I’m doing something to help people that deserve it,” said Mariah Daly, director of LPP’s Cannabis Justice Initiative, noting that the nonviolent cannabis offenders they represent often cannot afford legal representation.
Another LPP program focuses on reentry, providing what people need when they’re released — including funding — to help them get back on their feet. Since 2019, LPP has put over $1.5 million directly into the hands of cannabis prisoners and their families. “While people are incarcerated, their family members need financial support,” Bailey explained, noting that LPP’s grant program makes children of incarcerated people eligible for financial assistance.
“People need support, and so we work really hard to raise funding so we can support them,” she said.
LPP has some big names on hand to help spread the word about its work. Jim Belushi was one of the very first celebrity supporters to come aboard, and LPP’s inaugural fundraiser was held in his backyard. Tommy Chong is also on the team, as are Fab Five Freddy, Melissa Etheridge, B-Real from Cypress Hill, and Damian and Stephen Marley. The main way these celebrities help is by raising awareness and educating the public. With legal weed available on many street corners, it’s easy for the public to believe that nowadays no one is locked up for cannabis.
“Last Prisoner Project’s constituents are the pioneers of the now burgeoning cannabis industry. They took the arrows, and were sentenced to jail for paving the way,” said Belushi, who works as an advisor to LPP. And it’s not just the prisoners who have suffered. “So many families have been broken,” Belushi said. “The No. 1 fear in life is death, the No. 2 fear in life is the collapse of family. This war on drugs has collapsed the families of those incarcerated. Freeing them is the next wave of cannabis legalization.”
He noted that prisoners benefit from LPP in ways that go beyond legal and financial help. “We’re receiving support from all over the world — not only through donations, but through LPP’s letter writing campaign,” he said. The organization’s letter writing program helps supporters communicate directly with cannabis prisoners, encouraging them to remain hopeful.
Back when Shepard was incarcerated, she could have used this encouragement. She didn’t know of anybody out there advocating for her. But now, as partnerships manager for LPP, she’s the person doing the advocating — and, she says, it makes her every day worthwhile.
“My heart is with getting these people out and letting them get on with their life,” Shepard says. She believes that “if the time doesn’t fit the crime,” then nobody should be behind bars for cannabis charges, especially with corporations making millions legally in the industry.
As Bailey says, “Our goal is to put ourselves out of business, so we don’t need to exist. Our goal is to help release every last cannabis prisoner, so we don’t have to do this work anymore.”
What are your thoughts on nonviolent cannabis prisoners be freed?
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