Equity

“An Irony of Gruesome Proportions:” Cannabiz Contemplates Debt to Pot Offenders

By Hilary Corrigan Jun 29, 2020
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Evelyn LaChapelle never saw her daughter lose a tooth, graduate kindergarten or dance in her first recital. She also missed the funerals for her grandmother and stepmother.

LaChapelle spent five years in federal prison for non-violent cannabis charges. She recounted her experience in a webinar last week along with two other women who, as first-time, non-violent offenders, each spent several years locked up.

Events like these have multiplied in recent weeks to highlight the plight of those imprisoned for cannabis-related offenses and the issues they face as they return to society. The discussions also highlighted the industry’s shortcomings in repairing the harms of prohibition as companies seek fortunes in the same business.

LaChapelle recalled watching a news segment on a prison TV about the legal cannabis industry’s growth. “On the news in Beverly Hills, California, business is booming,” she recalled. “Ridiculous.”

The event was hosted by non-profit The Last Prisoner Project and cannabis marketplace Kush.com. The former provides legal services and other support for those incarcerated on cannabis-related offenses. 

“Obviously, we are in a moment,” when these issues are coming under close scrutiny, Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of Last Prisoner Project, said. Protests over the killing of George Floyd, police brutality and racism have focused attention on racial justice and how for many cannabis is the entry point to the criminal justice system. 

For decades, Black and Latino Americans have been far likelier than whites to faces criminal penalties for cannabis, despite comparable usage rates. Today, relatively few people arrested for low-level cannabis offenses face lengthy sentences. But, just getting arrested can severely hinder employment, education and housing opportunities.

Prohibition has had “devastating effects” Gersten said. Those in the cannabis industry and those who consume it, she said, have “a duty to try to repair these past harms of prohibition.”

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Disconnecting to survive

LaChapelle was convicted in 2013. Her felony charges related to depositing profits in her bank account in connection with a marijuana distribution operation. She was released in 2019 and is now serving four years of probation.

Gersten pointed to frequent cases in which women face long sentences for small tasks performed at the behest of their romantic partners. In these cases, they often refuse to give up their partners and get penalized for going to trial rather than taking plea agreements.

“I call that blackmail,” LaChapelle said of the justice system. 

LaChapelle was 28 when she faced the charges, with a four-year-old daughter. She had rejected an initial two-year offer, choosing instead to fight her case.  But at trial she faced 24 years in prison. To get a seven-year sentence, she had to forfeit her right to appeal.

Her daughter was 9 at the time of her release. “I regret daily” not taking the initial plea, LaChapelle said. “I sacrificed my daughter.”

“Adapting to prison life, not so bad,” she said. “You survive. We all have instincts to survive. But in order to emotionally survive, I had to learn how to disconnect from the outside world.”

The transition home hasn’t been easy for her or her daughter. For years, she was the mom who called twice a day from prison, where visits involved eating food from a vending machine and playing card games. Now, both must deal with bed times, homework and dinner.

“Just everyday life—to care for others, to receive their care for you, to be responsible for others, is still a struggle,” she said.

‘Absolutely horrific experience’

Returning to work can also be challenging.

In 2011,  Stephanie Shepard was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison related to a conspiracy conviction. She had sold four ounces of cannabis and agreed to allow an ex-boyfriend—a marijuana dealer with serious health problems—to stay with her after he left jail.

Shepard was 41 at her sentencing and is 51 now.

“They just threw 10 years at me like it was nothing,” she said. Her father died while she was incarcerated.

She used to sell real estate, but lost her license after her arrest. Now, she recounted interviewing for a coffee shop job. She wore an ankle monitor and explained that she’s a felon and had spent time in prison.

“I almost cried in an interview. A job interview,” she said.

Webinar panelist Natalia Wade was involved in the same case as her longtime friend LaChapelle. She faced similar charges and got a similar sentence. But Wade suffered serious health problems in prison that delayed her release until December 2019.

She recalled getting sick and not getting proper medical attention because officials assumed she wasn’t serious or simply wanted drugs. Eventually she was diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Then a blood clot in her lungs sent her into cardiac arrest and she was on life support for about two weeks.

Noting the “absolutely horrific experience that you’ve all been through,” Gersten said the cannabis community and industry must “do the work to lift you all up and others like you.”

Entrepreneurs, not criminals

At a separate webinar last week, Karson Humiston, CEO of cannabis human resources company Vangst, noted that she runs a business that gives people jobs in the cannabis industry. But more than 40,000 people remain in prison for cannabis-related crimes. “There are massive injustices that need to be fixed,” she said.

Panelist Weldon Angelos was a music producer in 2003 when he faced a 55-year sentence for cannabis charges. He served 13 years before politicians and celebrities helped get him out in 2016. He went on to work on federal justice reforms, but realized they don’t help all those still incarcerated on cannabis charges.

Angelos started a non-profit to help release those serving time for cannabis offenses. He encourages the cannabis industry to hire them. Some of them have already successfully run cannabis businesses and operations.

“These cannabis companies need to look at these people not as criminals but as entrepreneurs,” he said. “There’s sort of this stigma that black and brown people and people who have been incarcerated are somehow incapable of running high functioning organizations.”

Good for business

For the moment, at least, more people in the legal cannabis world are acknowledging the human casualties of the war on drugs. They’re also beginning to talk about what the industry owes those persecuted for pursuing the same business.

Arlene Mejia, director of reentry services at Last Prisoner Project, decried the hypocrisy of investors and others in the industry who won’t partner with those they see as “criminals.” 

She called for companies to create opportunities for cannabis offenders. She suggested they could post end-of-year data on how many new hires had been incarcerated.

Panelist Richard Bronson, founder and CEO of 70 Million Jobs, a company which finds jobs work for people who’ve been locked up, called the fact that so many people sit in prison for activities that are now legal “an irony of gruesome proportions.” He spent time in prison, as well, related to what he calls on his website his “crooked” work in finance.

In the webinar, he described the difficulty former prisoners have in searching for a job—usually on their phones, because they lack money for a laptop—and completing various forms in what becomes a “miserable experience.” Just getting to job interviews can be difficult, because they don’t have cars or they need to borrow appropriate clothes from friends. 

He called hiring former prisoners not only the right thing to do, but also good business. These are workers who are committed, loyal, have experience and elevate the workforce. 

“It behooves the cannabis industry and it’s an obligation of theirs to look after their own,” he said. “These are folks to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.”