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Cannabis marijuana prisoners America
illustration Callum Abbott

The fight to free America’s cannabis prisoners

People serving sentences for cannabis-related charges have been forced to watch as the legal industry thrives, classified as an ‘essential service’ during the pandemic – how will they fare this election?

In 2009, Evelyn LaChapelle was 23 years old and living in Los Angeles when her friend Corvain Cooper asked if he could deposit the money he was making shipping cannabis to North Carolina into her bank account. “He said, ‘I’m paying Western Union $300 a time when I could just pay you’,” she remembers. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’ Growing up in California, cannabis has always been in my life in some fashion. I never once thought about the consequences.”

Three years later, LaChapelle had finished university, had a daughter and moved to Oakland, where she was working at a Marriott hotel. One night she was visiting her mother when a neighbour called the police to report a “suspicious vehicle”. The officer who ran her name discovered a warrant out for her arrest. In 2013, she and Cooper stood trial in North Carolina, where despite being minor players they were convicted for the crimes of the entire California - North Carolina cannabis shipping network. Of the 63 people indicted, only three stood trial. “I was charged with something like $1.2 million in money laundering,” says LaChapelle, who estimates she made around $10,000 from the nine months she allowed Cooper to use her account. “I had not at all seen $1.2 million.”

LaChapelle was told she was facing 24 years in prison. Terrified she wouldn’t see her daughter grow up, she took a deal offered by prosecutors that cut her sentence to eight years in exchange for giving up her right to appeal. Cooper, for whom the conviction was a ‘third strike’, received the life sentence he is still serving to this day.

Like 76 per cent of people serving time in federal prisons on cannabis charges, both LaChappelle and Cooper are people of colour. Sarah Gersten, the executive director of advocacy group the Last Prisoner Project, points out that the system is functioning exactly as it was built to. “If you go back and read the legislative history of why they wanted to make cannabis illegal, it was very clearly because they thought they could use it to criminalise and put people in prison that they didn’t like and didn’t look like them,” she says. “The disproportionate impact of cannabis laws is working exactly as designed. It was designed to be a tool of racial control. That’s very obvious from the history.”

Meanwhile outside the prison walls, America’s legal cannabis business is booming. Sales are expected to exceed $15 billion by the end of this year, and the industry has proved relatively pandemic-proof. In many states, weed delivery services and slick, upmarket dispensaries designed to look like Apple stores have been declared an “essential service”. Among those profiting, the racial disparity is reversed: just 4.3 per cent of cannabis businesses are owned by Black people.

There are currently 33 states where cannabis is legal at least medicinally, including 11 where it’s legal for anyone over the age of 21 with cash in their pocket. That number is only going to get higher. This election day, four states - Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota - will vote on whether to fully legalise cannabis, while Mississippi will decide whether to allow prescribed medicinal use. There’s a very good chance voters in all five states will go for it. 67 per cent of Americans think cannabis should be legal, while 91 per cent support legalisation for medicinal purposes. The results are in: Americans like cannabis.

“The mass incarceration system in the United States was designed to suck people in, not to let them out” – Steve Hawkins, Marijuana Policy Project

Which is why it’s a screaming hypocrisy that Corvain Cooper is one of over 40,000 people locked in an American prison right now because of cannabis. That figure is a best guess, because the exact number is maddeningly hard to pin down. “It’s incredibly difficult to get these kinds of statistics,” says Gersten. Her job is freeing cannabis prisoners, but first she has to find them, which means combing through the tangled mess of separate prisoner records kept by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, state prisons, private prisons and municipal and county jails. Even after you get hold of someone’s record it still might not be clear why they’re incarcerated. In LaChapelle’s case, for example, her file would have read: ‘money-laundering’. “Even if, at its core, the offence you were arrested or incarcerated on was just about marijuana, there’s a whole number of reasons why it might not look like that on your record,” explains Gersten.

That same problem explains why the ‘clean slate’ legislation that some states have passed has fallen short of their goal of getting all nonviolent cannabis offenders out of already overcrowded prisons. Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, says they’re effectively trying to make a machine run in reverse. “The mass incarceration system in the United States was designed to suck people in, not to let them out,” he says. “That’s the huge tragedy. You can go to a state like Louisiana, where we know there are people sitting in prison where cannabis may have been their third strike. If you go to their case jackets it’s only going to say ‘drug offence’. You’ll have no idea what drug was involved. They’re very sloppy records.”

Before you have cannabis prisoners, you have to have cannabis arrests. Incredibly, despite the roaring legal industry and liberalising public opinion, arrests for cannabis are still going up. There were 663,000 cannabis arrests in America in 2018 – that’s 40 per cent of all drug arrests – and most of those were simply for possession. Police departments with arrest targets to meet often see going after cannabis possession as an easy way to juke their stats. These encounters with the police are not always safe. After Philando Castile was shot by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop in Minnesota in 2016, Yanez claimed in court that it was the scent of cannabis which made him fear for his life. Hawkins says he’s hopeful things are starting to change - albeit slowly. “I’m encouraged by what the state of Virginia did recently, where cannabis odour alone cannot now be grounds to ask to search a vehicle or to stop people,” he says. “Of course, it happens all the time that a law will pass but it still takes a while before the police actually curb their behaviour.”

Even once cannabis prisoners are freed they often have a mountain to climb to rebuild their lives, as LaChapelle learned. After being released from prison in February 2019, she quickly returned to her career in hospitality by finding a job at San Francisco’s Omni hotel. She worked there for two months before a co-worker googled her name and came across the page on ICE’s website detailing her conviction. “I was asked to pack up my belongings and leave that same day,” says LaChapelle.

In a particularly cruel hypocrisy, many people who have served time because of cannabis are prohibited from taking part in the thriving legal industry. Thankfully, LaChapelle’s new job as community engagement manager for the Oakland-based cannabis drinks company Vertosa, skirts around this issue. “I’m not allowed to touch the product,” she explains. “Post-COVID everything I do is from home, but pre-COVID their headquarters are 15 minutes drive from their lab, so I’m not in direct contact with the plant.”

LaChapelle says the legal industry as a whole could be doing a lot more to help prisoners. “I think it’s the responsibility of the entire industry not to move on without looking back at the 40,000 who are still incarcerated for the same plant,” she says. “Last Friday, the Kansas City Star ran a story about the city’s first dispensary selling out, and then you move to the crime section and Donte Westmoreland has been convicted of cannabis, released on an appeal, and now the prosecutor will be retrying him for that same cannabis charge. I think the industry can do a much better job at recognising that the legal system still is going after Black and brown people. How can the newspaper print those two stories on the same day and not see anything wrong with that?”

“Most Americans don’t see famous bootleggers as criminals that deserved prison time. We don’t want to look back on this in 100 years and say: ‘How could we do that?’ It is unjust to profit while others are incarcerated” – Sarah Gersten, Last Prisoner Project

Some members of the legal industry are trying to find a way to support the cause. California-based brand Canndescent recently launched ‘Justice Joints’ with a promise that they’ll donate 100 per cent of profits to support social equity and expungement programmes including the Last Prisoner Project. “The industry is at an inflection point and we can no longer merely pay lip service to the problem,” says Canndescent’s Sam Arellano. “We need to leverage our collective resources in order to create meaningful, sustainable impact.”

The most significant way to make an impact on all of these problems would be to make cannabis legal at the federal level. Whether or not that’s a realistic prospect depends on what happens on November 3. “I think for Congress to end federal prohibition, the leadership of the President matters a great deal,” says Hawkins, although he adds that the legalisation initiatives in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota could be as influential as the presidential race. “If these four states pass ballot initiatives next Tuesday, then I suspect we’ll see three or four additional states legalise cannabis in the first half of 2021. New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and New Mexico are very seriously looking at legalisation which they could pass by their state legislature. Quite frankly, the economic arguments that have always been there are going to carry a lot more weight. Every state is broke because of COVID.”

Hawkins’ use of the term ‘prohibition’ is an important one. There’s an obvious precedent for modern-day cannabis prisoners in the way that prohibition-era bootleggers are now venerated in American culture. “Most Americans don’t see famous bootleggers as criminals that deserved prison time,” points out Gersten. “We don’t want to look back on this in 100 years and say, ‘How could we do that?’ It is obviously so unjust to have some people now profiting off of this while others are incarcerated.”