Celebrities, cash and questions: A new force roils the cannabis prisoner-release movement

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With a founder who is one of the pot world’s most legendary activists and a board that includes Jim Belushi, Melissa Etheridge and two sons of Bob Marley, the Last Prisoner Project attracted fans from the moment it sprang on the West Coast charity scene in the spring of 2019, calling on cannabis enthusiasts to help secure the release of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes.

Now it’s getting attention for a different reason: pushback from would-be allies who’ve toiled for decades on the same cause.

The star-studded group known as LPP has amassed major financial commitments from cannabis companies by arguing that an industry dominated by white businesspeople is flourishing while tens of thousands of disproportionately Black and brown people remain in prison for marijuana-related crimes. That made it one of the richest sources of funding for a cause that has consumed pot activists for decades: bringing justice to those imprisoned for trading in what is now a legal product in 15 states.

But there are rampant questions about whether that money is being put to its best use. Interviews with more than a dozen cannabis industry insiders and social justice advocates revealed widespread anger toward LPP. Many claimed that the organization failed to follow through on commitments to support preexisting groups while doing relatively little on its own to reduce the level of incarceration. They described an organization that is good at promoting itself, collecting celebrity endorsements and raising money from the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry, but less willing to put in the hard work required to help get people out of prison.

“What LPP is doing is so problematic because they are coming into a space and soaking up the very scarce resources that exist,” said Lynne Lyman, the former California director of the Drug Policy Alliance and co-founder of the nonprofit Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership. Lyman was in talks to partner with LPP last year on a program to help former prisoners reenter society but said that LPP backed out after she put in months of work developing the program.

“What we are missing is funding,” Lyman said. “We don’t need you to come in here and reinvent the wheel. They refused to hear that message.”

By the standards of social justice groups, LPP has indeed been showered with contributions. It received pledges of at least $500,000 this year from cannabis companies with operations in several states, including such major industry players as AWH and Green Thumb Industries. And that’s not counting an additional trove of funds that were tied to a percentage of sales or revenues, or in-kind donations. The half-million alone is already more than double what LPP raised in 2019.

LPP officials adamantly reject the criticisms of Lyman and others, pointing to three cases in which they say their work was crucial in securing the release of prisoners serving sentences for marijuana-related crimes. They also say LPP is spending energy and resources on other missions, including erasing the criminal records of those convicted of marijuana crimes and providing reentry services to people as they get out of prison.

In addition, they dispute fellow advocates’ claims that they failed to follow through on commitments to other groups.

“I believe that we are absolutely collaborative in our mission and our work in supporting community organizations and doing the work on the ground,” said Sarah Gersten, LPP’s executive director and general counsel.

Not so, according to Bonita Money, founder of the Los Angeles-based National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance.

“They’re trying to appropriate the work of folks that are doing the work,” she said. “They’re wasting a lot of our time and resources.”

Borrowing other people’s ideas

Activists think they can pinpoint the moment LPP started stealing their thunder.

In February 2019, two months before LPP was founded, a group of prisoner advocates and representatives of the marijuana industry met in Los Angeles to coordinate efforts to help those who’ve been punished for trading in pot.

A prison reform activist named Weldon Angelos convened the meeting to rally cannabis players around a common goal: getting people still locked up for marijuana offenses out of prison. Angelos himself had served 13 years of a 55-year sentence for selling a few hundred dollars’ worth of marijuana to an informant before former President Barack Obama granted him clemency. President Donald Trump pardoned him earlier this month. After Angelos gained his freedom, he started a nonprofit group called the Weldon Project to help others like himself.

At the meeting, the various advocacy groups vowed to work together to ensure they didn’t step on each other’s toes. They also made appeals to the booming marijuana industry to help fund their efforts.

Steve DeAngelo, founder of the famed Harborside dispensary in California, was at the meeting, talking about how to get the cannabis industry to donate more to the cause.

DeAngelo is a minor celebrity in cannabis circles for having established California’s — and quite possibly the country’s — largest medical marijuana dispensary. Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown dubbed him the “Father of the Cannabis Industry,” a detail he touts on his business cards and promotional materials.

“I left that meeting feeling really good,” said Stephanie Le, a former volunteer for the Weldon Project. She found herself impressed by DeAngelo, thinking, “Wow, he’s an amazing person — he really cares about advocating for people.”

DeAngelo even expressed interest in joining the board of the Weldon Project’s Mission Green initiative, which focuses exclusively on cannabis-related offenses, but said he didn’t want to be announced as a board member just then.

“I would want some of the issues that I’ve raised to be more nailed down before I was announced in a press release,” DeAngelo said, according to video footage of the meeting reviewed by POLITICO. “Just let me know before we do a press release.”

Le said she sent DeAngelo all the information he requested about Mission Green’s plans, including details about operations and marketing in an effort to bring him on as a board member.

Instead, DeAngelo started his own nonprofit — Last Prisoner Project — in April 2019. He never did join Mission Green’s board.

“I declined the invitation because Mission Green was unable to provide me (after several requests) with the information I needed to be effective as an industry liaison and fundraiser,” DeAngelo said in an emailed response to questions from POLITICO. “Proof of non-profit status; budget; operational plan, and a list of officers.”

Le was caught off guard by the move, but still gladly picked up the phone when one of DeAngelo’s lawyers called to express DeAngelo’s interest in having LPP work with her on Mission Green. But she soon became uneasy.

“I started to get really uncomfortable because they were asking me really specific questions,” Le recounted. One example, she recalled, was “Who are the first 10 hires for Mission Green and can you give us their contact info?”

“That’s odd,” Le said she remembers thinking. “We don’t have any money. We’re all volunteers.”

During the Los Angeles meeting, Le said, she had described a concept for a Mission Green sticker project to co-brand cannabis products — the proceeds of which would go back into the group’s advocacy efforts.

“Now, Steve DeAngelo is doing the same thing, which he learned about in this meeting,” she said.

Last month, LPP announced a partnership with multi-state marijuana company Trulieve on a limited edition “Freedom preroll” joint, the proceeds of which go to the organization. The nonprofit also co-branded a pipe with GRAV, a brand of smoking accessories. Its logo appears on cannabis products sold by Ocean Grown Extracts and CannaCraft, among others.

“It makes me feel angry, but I feel like there’s nothing we can do about it,” Le said.

Gersten said that the work of Mission Green and LPP are distinct, and that she hopes that LPP can “keep working” with Angelos’ group in the future.

For his part, Angelos called for those in the cannabis advocacy space to work together during a moment when “we have an opportunity to accomplish some great things,” he said in a statement. “We all need to get together and figure out how to work together without stepping on toes and disrespecting each other’s’ hard work.”

Reaching out and reaching in

Mission Green isn’t the only advocacy group that fielded inquiries from LPP and came away believing their ideas were being stolen.

Money said leaders of LPP approached her earlier this year to talk about her work on the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance and explore ways that the two organizations might partner on programs. But it soon became clear that LPP hadn’t done much homework.

“What do you really want to do in L.A.?” Money recalled asking LPP Director Mary Bailey.

“We want to get returning citizens working in the cannabis industry,” she recalled Bailey replying.

Money was incredulous. “People on parole and probation can’t work in the cannabis industry!” she said, reflecting the well-known reality that the federal government has yet to recognize the legality of the cannabis industry.

She said she was baffled that an organization purporting to do such work would not even know such a basic fact and felt like LPP was trying to use her connections and work for their own benefit.

“If they really wanted to support us, they would just write us a check,” she said.

Bailey did not respond to an emailed request for comment on her exchange with Money.

For her part, Money said, she cut off talks with LPP after hearing horror stories from other local advocates, including Lyman.

Last year, Lyman said LPP approached her about working together to help freed prisoners reenter society. Excited, Lyman said she spent months developing a pilot program for LPP.

Lyman said she thought her Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, or LARRP, would be the perfect partner for LPP in providing such services because it already works with the Los Angeles sheriff’s department. Providing a smooth reentry for people getting out of prison requires more than simply getting them a job, Lyman explained. The process is a complex one, which requires case managers to help former prisoners obtain everything from housing to health care.

Lyman described dozens of conversations over a series of months in which she discussed with LPP officials how best to tailor a reentry program. But after she spent hundreds of hours of work and reached out to additional partners for the project, LPP declined to move forward.

“Steve DeAngelo could have funded the measly couple thousands [of dollars] a month we were asking for,” Lyman said. “We assumed that they would fund the work.”

Gersten, LPP’s executive director, disputes that account. She said that LPP worked with Lyman’s group on a couple of events but never committed to partnering on the reentry program. “I don’t believe we ‘declined to move forward,’” she said. Regarding the reentry partnership, she said, LPP’s corporate partner needed more detailed documents than Lyman was able to provide.

For her part, Lyman shared copies of a budget plan she sent to Gersten in September 2019 detailing the costs for various items, including retainers for case managers from a Los Angeles employment nonprofit called the Center for Living and Learning, rentals of facilities and equipment, and more. The estimated cost of the program was about $73,000, according to the preliminary budget.

“We weren’t willing to continue to give up our intellectual property and our time to a partner who told us that they weren’t going to fund LARRP’s role in it,” Lyman said. “Of course, we would have provided a more detailed budget at some point if they agreed to the more basic components.”

For Lyman, the issue wasn’t only about the amount of money. “There’s a moral and ethical issue here,” she said. “[Cannabis] corporations or anyone who wants to come in and engage with the reentry community — they can’t expect them to work for free.”

Torie Marshall, co-founder of National Expungement Week, which draws attention to excesses in the war on drugs and provides legal assistance for expunging past criminal convictions, described a similar about-face.

“[LPP] asked to be a part of our sponsorship deck and said they would fundraise for us,” Marshall said. But N.E.W. never received any financial contributions from LPP, according to Marshall and Felicia Carbajal, an organizer and N.E.W. board member.

Gersten, the LPP executive director, said her group helped in other ways: “We did help them fundraise. We made a lot of connections [for them] to potential corporate sponsors.”

When asked about the potential corporate sponsors, Marshall burst out into laughter. She said LPP connected N.E.W. with the pot industry giant MedMen, which asked N.E.W. to use the company’s logo and branding for a legal clinic. MedMen was a problematic partner for other reasons, as well: the multi-state cannabis company has long drawn the scrutiny of activists, thanks to its penchant for corporate excess and hollow promises in support of criminal justice goals.

What would have actually helped the organization, Marshall explained, was providing funding for legal fees for those with criminal records. She was concerned that LPP was sending over industry donors that wanted attention for themselves and “had the same intentions that LPP had with us: just to say they tried to help N.E.W.”

“It wasn’t the right help,” Marshall recalls explaining to LPP. “We didn’t need stickers. We need people who can help pay for legal fees.”

A big “Year One”

In its first annual report, “Year One,” LPP touted its advocacy efforts that “led to the release of hundreds of at-risk individuals” during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to questions from POLITICO, LPP pointed to three cases in particular.

The group said it has secured the release of Philong Chuong, a 57-year-old Vietnam War refugee who was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and money laundering. Chuong ended up serving five years of his sentence before LPP, partnering with the Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter, filed a motion to secure his release from federal prison as Covid-19 spread through the facility.

LPP also touted the release of 71-year-old Richard DeLisi after it “supplemented” a “previously filed clemency application,” according to an email to supporters. DeLisi had served more than 30 years of a 90-year sentence in Florida state prison for smuggling more than 100 pounds of marijuana from Colombia into Florida, and was eligible for conditional medical release due to his chronic medical conditions and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Florida Department of Corrections told the Lakeland Ledger that the shortening of his sentence had nothing to do with outside groups.

The group also submitted a clemency petition for Michael Thompson, who was granted a commutation by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week.

Regarding the “hundreds of at-risk individuals” LPP said it helped release in its Year One report, Gersten said in an email that LPP provided technical and legal support to the state of Colorado to help carry out an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis to release 290 people in an effort to help stem the spread of coronavirus within prisons.

The 290 people were let out of the state prison system over the course of two months after the governor signed the order on March 25, but a spokesperson for the governor said the Polis administration did not have any input from outside organizations on implementing the executive order.

Gersten said the organization’s report on its first-year accomplishments didn’t capture a lot of its recent work on education and reentry services. The organization is partnering with several business schools on incorporating social justice into their cannabis curriculums, and is ramping up its policy work through discussions with state legislative staffers. She said LPP pairs prisoners with pro bono attorneys whom LPP trains. The organization provides template documents and walks the attorneys through the administrative process and how to deal with the federal Bureau of Prisons.

“We supervise them on these cases,” Gersten said.

Gersten also cited LPP’s work with local organizations including Yes we Canna, the GRYD network, Redemption Cannabis and FORCE Detroit.

Ryan Basore, founder of Redemption Cannabis, spoke highly of working with LPP. “The people they have over there are so top notch,” he said. “They’re so organized and so professional.”

LPP’s 2019 tax filing stated that in the eight months after its founding in April, it raised just over $240,000 and spent $90,000 in compensation on Gersten and $54,579 on Bailey. The organization also spent money on professional fundraising fees, advertising and travel, among other expenses. But a clearer picture of LPP’s activities will emerge when it files its 2020 tax report, since it has raised the bulk of its funds this year.

$1,000-a-plate fundraisers

LPP’s celebrity-studded board, featuring Etheridge, Belushi and Damian and Stephen Marley, has propelled its fundraising.

Belushi hosted a fundraising dinner in July 2019 for LPP in his Brentwood home. The event featured a cannabis-infused dinner for $1,000 a plate and generated nearly $30,000, Variety reported. More recently, Belushi was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, talking about racial disparities in marijuana enforcement and LPP.

Longtime criminal justice advocates have mixed feelings about the work of the celebrities and the cannabis-industry donations they help to generate. On the one hand, they bring money to a cause that advocates have long struggled to promote. On the other hand, the celebrities aren’t always well-informed and some industry players, in particular, seem to care more about helping their branding than bringing justice to prisoners.

That’s why advocates feel it’s especially important for LPP to channel its resources to people who are already up to speed on the issues.

Cheri Sicard, who started working with federal marijuana prisoners nearly a decade ago, founded a nonprofit called Marijuana Lifer in 2015 but eventually had to shut it down because of difficulty fundraising. She said “it was like pulling teeth” when she tried to raise money for her nonprofit. “That’s where Steve [DeAngelo] can do some good. I don’t have the same name recognition.”

Jane West, a cannabis advocate who runs an eponymous cannabis lifestyle brand, wanted to partner with formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs through her company. She started looking into LPP and was concerned with what she saw. West questioned how the group could be running so many programs — from expungements to clemency to reentry — with so few staffers.

“They’ve collected a lot of celebrities,” she said. “Cannabis companies are donating and those companies are getting credit for being leaders of social justice.”

In a sign of LPP’s marketing savvy, the organization won a Clio Cannabis Impact Award in December as part of the cannabis offshoot of the venerable advertising award.

For all the cannabis industry’s talk of helping people who were and are in prison for marijuana offenses, criminal justice advocates point to a disquieting dynamic: many companies just want to make it look like they are doing good work and giving back to social justice causes. Thus, they respond to celebrity entreaties and opportunities to co-brand products with LPP while neglecting the advocates in the trenches.

Lyman cited the work of Money, and The Hood Incubator in Oakland, Calif., led by Ebele Ifedigbo and Lanese Martin. “They tried to come in and do social justice work, [and] can’t get any money,” she said. “The industry doesn’t want to pay.”

She advised LPP that there were already advocacy groups doing the work that they wanted to do led by people of color on the ground. LARRP, she explained, is a grassroots organization led by two Black men who spent years in federal prison.

Lyman said many of her non-cannabis industry donors pulled out as the state-legal cannabis industry raked in billions, believing that those currently trading in marijuana would pay to support the legal efforts of those who were punished for it. She aggressively courted the cannabis industry for donations after California legalized adult-use marijuana in 2016, thinking the newly legal industry would be eager to support a nonprofit that provides social, health and housing services to those getting out of prison.

“Our experience … from the cannabis industry has been horrific,” she said. After four years of courting the industry and dozens of meetings with industry representatives that seemed interested in supporting people impacted by incarceration, the group has raised “maybe a grand total of $7,500” from the cannabis industry. Only Cresco Labs and the Long Beach Cannabis Business Association donated.

“The desperately needed public interest cannabis policy work is just not happening,” Lyman said.

But when civil unrest over racism and policing reached a fever pitch earlier this year, cannabis companies seemed to find a newfound push to donate to the cause and a new organization that was well-placed to reap the benefits. Advocates see it as the weed version of companies across industries touting their support and donations for Black Lives Matter.

George Floyd’s killing was a “racial awakening moment,” Lyman said. That made it “even more obnoxious that this white organization has ramped up their ability to grow off of this movement instead of supporting grassroots efforts.”

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