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Finding New Meaning on 420 with Last Prisoner Project

Urban legends about the origin of 420 abound – from a group of 1970s high school students meeting at 4:20 p.m. every day to smoke cannabis (or possibly go on a treasure hunt for cannabis plants growing wild), to the supposed police code for marijuana, to a reference to the Bob Dylan song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and even a 1939 short story by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling referencing “curious mirage-plants” that would get the narrator high around 4:20.

But regardless of how it started, 420 (April 20) has become the highest holiday on the calendar. And yet, even as thousands of people legally celebrate 420 in the 39 states and additional U.S. territories that have legalized medical and/or adult-use cannabis, approximately 40,000 people are still incarcerated on cannabis charges. Many of those individuals have been convicted of non-violent charges, like Michael Thompson, who Forbes reported in 2020 was serving prison time for a 1994 non-violent conviction for selling marijuana in Michigan, or Michael, who PBS News Hour reports has struggled with finding work after serving probation for a marijuana charge.

Over the course of U.S. history, Black people have been arrested and convicted at disproportionately high rates, even though cannabis usage is approximately equal between Black and white people. According to a 2020 report from the ACLU, Black people nationwide are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. And a cannabis conviction typically presents roadblocks to finding work and housing, and even voting.

Many states that have legalized cannabis have provided a process for expungement, or for removing certain cannabis charges from criminal records. But while the exact process varies from state to state, it is often complicated and expensive. At Goodness Growth Holdings, we believe it is our responsibility to help facilitate this process. We have hosted no-cost expungement clinics in Arizona, Maryland, New York and Minnesota, partnering with legal organizations to help those with applicable cannabis convictions start the expungement process. And we are excited to be planning another clinic at our newest dispensary in Baltimore, MD on Saturday, May 7 (individuals in Maryland with victimless, non-violent cannabis charges can register for a free appointment here).

We’re also proud of our partnership with Last Prisoner Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that works to free current cannabis prisoners and support those who have been released through re-entry programs. This 420, we sat down with Michael Deegan-McCree, Senior Impact Strategist for Last Prisoner Project, to talk about the work the organization does and why it is so important. If you’re interested in helping, Last Prisoner Project has a list of ways to get involved – from donating to writing letters to supporting efforts to free people like Kevin Allen, who is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of selling $20 worth of marijuana.

Tell us more about the work Last Prisoner Project does. What do you want people to know about your work? Why is it so important?

Last Prisoner Project was founded back in 2019, and the organization is dedicated to working on cannabis-related criminal justice reform with the goal of releasing every prisoner who is behind bars for any cannabis offense and helping them rebuild their lives and transition back into the 21st century job market, whether that is in cannabis or in the industry of their choosing.

We have intervention, advocacy, and awareness campaigns, with the goal of addressing the inhumane and draconian effects of policies on the federal and some state levels, as it relates to cannabis.

While working to release people currently imprisoned on cannabis charges is a large undertaking by itself, you don’t stop there. Can you tell us more about the challenges people face after they are released, and what you do to help address those challenges?

The same challenges confront those who have been incarcerated for cannabis as do anyone who has been impacted by the unethical practice of mass incarceration in the United State. When you are arrested, convicted and/or sentenced, any or all of the three, you now have a record. And the failed war on drugs specifically has made it so folks who are impacted don’t have access to the resources that would allow for them to live a thriving existence and be a contributing member to society.

At Last Prisoner Project, we try to do as much as we possibly can to relieve those collateral consequences. Most of our constituents come to us in one of two ways. One is through our legal advocacy program, our cannabis justice program, or our legal department’s partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. We also work to bring cannabis-impacted folks in as constituents by way of re-entry and impact work, to make sure that the negative impact of those collateral consequences is eased through our programming. We have a full-blown re-entry partnerships program that we launched four weeks ago, and as Senior Impact Strategist, I am lead staff member on this four-pronged project.

The first prong is the Micro Grant Initiative. If you have been impacted by the war on cannabis, whether you’ve been arrested, convicted, sentenced, or if an immediate family member (a child, a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a primary caretaker) has been impacted, you are eligible for a micro grant of up to $5,000. What many of us recognize is that $5,000 only gets you up the street and around the corner, so to speak. What folks who are coming home need is tools and resources that will help them live a thriving existence, not just a surviving existence. The other three initiatives that fill out our re-entry partnerships do that.

Computers For Constituents is one. We partner with some retail organizations to donate laptops, tablets, and similar equipment in-kind to Last Prisoner Project so we can gift them to our constituents who are making an effort to either restart an academic journey, or who are ready and aggressively applying for a career position and are in need of 21st century technology.

Another is our Ready to Hire program. We’re partnering with our bulk retail partners and our grassroots community partners to create opportunities for our constituents to engage with organizations inside and outside the cannabis industry that are ready and capable of practicing fair chance hiring. These are organizations that understand the importance of hiring those who are directly impacted, and they also understand the benefit to their company of doing so. We really challenged our partners to come up with the way they feel is most impactful, whether that’s hosting career conferences for those who are directly impacted or in-career development like paid internships or paid fellowships for our constituents.

Our third initiative is Premier Community Engagement Partnerships. We’re challenging some multi-million-dollar MSOs (multi-state operators) to do a little more, to create their own re-entry programming. We can be the liaison to those directly impacted for their organization, so that they are starting the conversation of criminal justice as it relates to cannabis and the cannabis industry.

Those three initiatives and the Micro Grant Initiative make up our re-entry partnerships program, and that’s what this work for many of us truly is about. We can’t just open the prison gates for our constituents; that’s not enough. We also need to give those who are impacted the tools so they can be successful in the 21st century United States. That’s what our re-entry program is all about.

The work you do must be intense, and with approximately 40,000 people still imprisoned on cannabis charges, there is a lot to be done. How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of cannabis criminalization needing to be addressed (and the number of individuals incarcerated on cannabis charges needing assistance)?

You don’t keep from being overwhelmed. If you’re not overwhelmed by the inhumane incarceration of human beings, then you’re not doing the right work. If you don’t think it’s draconian and inhumane and an abuse of human rights to put people behind bars, then you’ve become numb to what the problem is itself. I don’t keep from being overwhelmed because the work itself is inherently overwhelming.

Why is it so important for cannabis companies (growers, dispensaries, and others in the industry) to support DEI efforts, including partnering with Last Prisoner Project?

It’s really important for these organizations to understand the difference between DEI in cannabis and criminal justice reform in cannabis. They do overlap, but it’s important to understand that there are efforts to reform the criminal legal impact to the cannabis movement, and then there are efforts to heal the negative impact of the war on cannabis by way of DEI policy and DEI initiatives. It’s important for organizations to understand both and get involved in both, because you can’t have one without the other. You cannot dismantle the War on Drugs and those policies and then do nothing to correct the collateral consequences throughout the generations, to right the wrong. You need policy reform and you need community engagement to right the economic wrong that has impacted mostly Black and Brown communities.

How can people support efforts to end cannabis-based incarceration and to support re-entry efforts?

Folks can come to our website and check out all of the work that we’re doing and the impact that we’re making. But I would be wrong not to mention other organizations that are doing equally, if not more, important work and moving the needle around cannabis justice.

If people really want to help, they can also make sure that they are supporting local organizations that are founded and led by executives who are Black or Brown who are also directly impacted. When you’re trying to combat the evils of the war on cannabis, it’s really important to look at organizations that don’t have the national presence or the financial backing that Last Prisoner Project has. Some of these organizations include Minorities for Medical Marijuana, which is more concentrated on DEI initiatives than criminal justice. Another really great organization for people to support is one of our best partners, 40 Tons. They’re also Black-led, directly impacted; their CEO is a Black woman. And The Hood Incubator is another Black-led cannabis organization that should be supported.

Is there any other information you’d like to share?

I encourage folks to check out Our Impact page on our website. It tells you the exact impact of our re-entry program, our advocacy, our legal and policy programs. It breaks down the numbers of what work we have done and what we are continuing to do. The other page I would challenge people to look at is our Re-Entry Partnerships page. It gives a little more granular detail about the four initiatives I mentioned earlier.

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