People in Jail for Cannabis While Legal Market Booms is “The Height of Injustice”

CANNABIS CULTURE – “It is really the height of injustice to have individuals still incarcerated in your state on marijuana-related offences at the same time as you have a booming legal cannabis industry,” says Sarah Gersten, executive director for Last Prisoner Project.

Sarah Gertsen EXecutive Director of the Last Prisoner Project

The Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Release Campaign (MCPRC) in conjunction with the Last Prisoner Project (LPP) is working hard to fundraise and raise awareness for Michiganites that are currently still incarcerated for cannabis-related offences while cannabis has been legal for medical and recreational use since 2018.

While the LPP is an organization that works on a national level, Michigan has become a priority state for their work. As Gersten explained during her interview with Cannabis Culture, “What we are doing is we pushing for broad systemic reform, and to do that, you really need the buy-in of key stakeholders, and the law makers in Michigan were really the most amenable to pushing forward this type of program.”

According to their press release, the LPP aims to secure the release and record expungement of Rudi Gammo, Michael Thompson, and all nonviolent Michigan cannabis prisoners. The cases of these men even grabbed the attention of celebrity, Montel Williams, who was himself arrested in 2002 for a cannabis-related offence. Williams stated, “Michigan’s failure to address restorative justice as part of cannabis legalization shocks the conscience. Governor Whitmer made a campaign promise and yet somehow, because her parole board refuses to perform its statutory duty in a timely fashion, Michael Thompson remains in a Muskegon prison, now in his 25th year behind bars for selling three pounds of cannabis to an undercover officer in a crime that hurt no one. Rudi Gammo, who operated a medical dispensary in Detroit and only sold to patients with valid medical cards, is serving more than 5 years in prison.”

Williams was well aware of how lucky he was as a Black American male to have served no prison time while men like Thompson are serving de facto life sentences. The ACLU put out a study in 2020 that Black Americans are 4x as likely as Caucasians to be arrested for marijuana offences, so he very much aligned with the cause and is supporting this effort for the criminal justice aspects as well as the racial justice implications of this campaign. He pointed out the stark contrast between himself and these men, saying “I got the celebrity treatment when I got arrested, and the disparity between my outcome and the outcomes for Michael and Rudi haunt me.”

With Williams’ support and the rallying of the public toward the cause, Thompson was able to get his case brought to court in a much timelier fashion that is typical. Of course, most people do not receive this kind of press. In fact, many cannot even reach out to access the help they need, especially during COVID, as restrictions on visitations, internet access, and phone calls have become much stronger than before. Having prisoners be aware of and able to access the program is next to impossible for many, which means the campaign has to work to identify these individuals to be able to provide them support through proactive outreach.

In the US there are over 40,000 people in the prison system for crimes related to marijuana, and in Michigan alone there is a minimum of 2000. “In the US, trying to get data from criminal legal systems, stakeholders at the county level, state level, and even federally is really difficult,” said Gersten. “We actually think that number is probably low because it is not accounting for people incarcerated for short term in jails, but just people serving lengthier sentences in state prisons.”

Since getting the data is often the hardest part, and they are getting a strong set of data from Michigan, the MCPRC and LPP are now confident that post-election, the campaign will move along expeditiously with the buy-in particularly from the Attorney General’s office, and Governor Whitmer having signaled her willingness to support the campaign. Pre-election it is difficult to get anything through any elected officials’ office right now, but the Governor has not only been in favour of legalization, but specifically stated while legalization was happening that she wanted to promote restorative justice elements of cannabis reform.

Right now, the founding partners joining the fight with the MCPRC include Weedmaps, C3 Indu­stries, Skymint, Redemption Cannabis, Gage Cannabis Co., The Botanical Company, Truu Cannabis, Home Grown, Driven Grow, Om of Medicine, Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, Real Leaf Solutions, Great Lakes Holistics, Northern Specialty Health, ­Fresh Coast Extracts, Bullit Budz, Midnight Roots, Sparrow Consulting, O2VAPES, Green Cross Detroit, Arbors Wellness, Act Labs, Cloud Cannabis, The Refinery, Cannrose Cannabis Co., Martin Waymire, and 3Fifteen Cannabis. A big piece of this collaboration has been partnering with Redemption Foundation, founded by Ryan Basore, a Michigan local, who was also incarcerated on a marijuana offence, and now is successful in the cannabis industry and has been key in rallying Michigan operators around this cause. To date these companies have been able to contribute an initial raise of $30,000 for prisoners.

Currently, those identified as being eligible for the program are direct recipients for most of the funding provided through LPP and MCPRC, and the funding is divided in 4 major ways.

The first area money is directed to is legal release efforts. It is a big project to provide legal assistance for all identified as eligible, but luckily a lot of services come thru pro bono attorney partners. This means that more money is then freed up for the next area, commissaries of the incarcerated.

In the midst of the pandemic, we are seeing some of the most restrictive lockdowns ever in the nation’s history. In many states in the US, if you are incarcerated you actually have to pay a co-pay to get medical care, so incarcerated constituents are really in need of financial support right now more than ever before, so money going directly to them via their commissaries has been a massive assistance toward their wellbeing.

Another designated area for funding goes to the family members who are suffering monumentally. Rudy Gammo’s case is an example of the extreme hardships many families are facing. Beyond losing a breadwinner in the family, Gammo’s son was just diagnosed with leukemia. LPP and MCRC were able to donate $10,000 directly to this family as they have piling medical bills and really need the support from this fund as well.

Lastly, the goal is not just to these incarcerated individuals released, but also to provide financial compensation for time lost. In the case of Michael Thompson, the campaign was able to secure $30,000 for his re-entry to society. Gersten explained why this was necessary. “It is incredibly difficult to reenter society post incarceration. We do not really provide any services or resources to help these people. We actually set up a lot of barriers, which is why within 3 years of release, about 2/3 of incarcerated people will be re-arrested.” She continued, “When you get out, it is really hard to find employment due to the stigma that a criminal record carries. It is tough to get federal assistance, housing, so we know that beyond deserving restitution from this industry for what our constituents have suffered, they are greatly in need of additional financial support when they are reentering.”

When asked what the LPP and MCPRC would ultimately like to convey to the public, Gersten stated, “We feel that it is a moral imperative for people in Michigan, particularly cannabis consumers and industry members, to prioritize restorative justice for members of the Michigan community that have been disproportionally impacted by these unjust marijuana laws. It is just the height of injustice to have a robust legal industry while some are still languishing behind bars.”

“I think if we are able to raise $100,000, that would make me feel really confident on our ability to execute on the 4 goals of the fund and to be able to provide support for all of the individuals we have deemed eligible, but of course I would love to get as much assistance to those people that have suffered so bravely as possible.” Ways to donate to the Last Prisoner Project, as well as more information on their work, can be found at www.lastprisonerproject.org. For those unable to contribute at this time, the website also offers other ways to support the cause.

Last Prisoner Project Team

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