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Tag: The Last Prisoner Project

The Father of the Legal Cannabis Industry

Cannabis activist and pioneer Steve DeAngelo discusses how hemp can literally save the world, about its likelihood as an industry disrupter, and what cannabis legalization may look like under President Biden.

Don’t at all be fooled by his mellow demeanor or by his trademark pigtail braids and pork pie hat, because Steve DeAngelo is all business. A pioneering activist for the cannabis reform movement, Mr. DeAngelo has dedicated his life to advocating the cannabis plant first and foremost as a connoisseur, but also as an author, educator, investor and entrepreneur. 

He is credited with co-founding Harborside in 2006 as a nonprofit medical cannabis dispensary, when the company was granted one of the first medical licenses in the country. His other achievements are quite impressive: the Discovery Channel miniseries Weed Wars; he was the lead organizer and fundraiser for I-59, Washington D.C.’s medical cannabis initiative; also, Mr. DeAngelo, who studied at the University of Maryland School of Law, successfully litigated against the Department of Justice’s last-ditch effort in 2011 to shut down California’s medical cannabis dispensaries; and he also played a major role in the passage of Prop 64, which legalized recreational cannabis for adults in California.

The Texas Hemp Reporter caught up with the legend himself earlier this year, not long after he parted ways with Harborside Inc, a California-focused cannabis enterprise that is currently a publicly listed company on the Canadian Securities Exchange, where he was co-founder and, most recently, chairman emeritus. 

TEXAS HEMP REPORTER: Is the legalization of cannabis on the federal level likely to happen during the Biden presidency?

STEVE DeANGELO: We are likely to see some significant reform at the federal level. I’m not sure that’s going to include what we would call complete legalization. President Biden and Vice-President Harris have a long history of working with law enforcement. They both have a record ‒ not a good record ‒ of passing and enforcing laws that really hurt a lot of people. Kamala Harris, when she was the attorney general of California, oversaw many, many, many cannabis prosecutions. There are still people in prison today because of her prosecutions for something that is legal now. And after she was elected with a lot of the help from the [medical] cannabis industry, she failed to come to our assistance in 2011 when the federal government tried to shut down the California industry. In fact, in a TV interview, she basically laughed about the idea of cannabis reform. So, with that said, I think both Biden and Harris are creatures of a political center. That’s where they want to position themselves; and now the whole Democratic Party is in favor of cannabis ‒ as well as a big chunk of the Republican Party. And, really, cannabis is the only bipartisan consensus issue between the two parties today. Sixty percent of Americans are in favor of legalization. So I do have faith that Biden and Harris will figure out where the political center is on on this, and the more help we give them to do that, the sooner we’ll see reforms and the more likely they’ll be complete.

THR: Now that you’ve cut ties with Harborside, what’s going to be your biggest focus going forward?

SD: I’m really interested in the ESG space, which to some means “Equity, Sustainability, and Governance.” Some people call it “Environmental, Social, and Governance.” There’s a whole sector of investors for whom the whole sector of ESG investing is a growing and increasingly important sector ‒ probably the most rapidly-growing investor sector today. And on the company side, we have many cannabis companies that are going to be headed up by licensees who receive social-equity licenses. And those licenses frequently have a really difficult time finding financial resources that they need to develop their licenses. So that’s a problem I would really like to help solve, and I think there’s a win-win solution there for equity licensees and for investors who are interested in making an impact. 

THR: Of course you’ll be focusing on the Last Prisoner Project, too. Tell us, essentially, what the nonprofit is fighting for.

SD: The mission of the Last Prisoner Project is really narrow. We hope someday to put ourselves out of business. Its mission is simple: And that’s to make sure that, as this new, global, legal cannabis industry is built, every single person on the planet who’s imprisoned on cannabis charges is released. It comes out of a basic notion of fairness. We shouldn’t keep punishing people for it. In today’s atmosphere, it’s just completely unacceptable for white guys with Ivy-League degrees working on Wall Street to come into legal cannabis and get licenses and grow and sell tons and tons of cannabis at the same time that there’s mostly black and brown people who are imprisoned for cannabis crimes involving far, far smaller quantities. Eighty-seven percent of cannabis prisoners in the federal system are people of color. Our mission is really focused on cannabis prisoners; it becomes a social-justice mission just by virtue of the fact that so much of the prohibition in the United States is racially driven. … What we do is work for the release of prisoners, and then we also work to make their reentry [into society] productive and fruitful.

THR: On your website is a very compelling, convincing video of you saying how hemp can save the world, how it could replace all the materials that are sickening us as well as the planet. Can you expound on this?

SD: For me, it’s all one plant. There’s this unfortunate confusion of terminology that’s come into place, largely because there’s a loophole under hemp regulation to allow ‘hemp to be grown for human consumption’ as long as it doesn’t contain THC. I think that’s really the wrong way of looking at it. For me, there’s just two kinds of cannabis: cannabis that is produced for human beings to consume, whatever its cannabinoid and terpene profile is; and cannabis that’s produced to make something out of. I don’t muddy those definitions up with THC, because THC is just one of 140 different cannabinoids that prohibition has an obsession with. But that doesn’t mean that we should. I absolutely see industrial hemp as being a critical part of the revolution that’s underway here. Mother Nature was incredibly kind to us. She gave us one plant that wakes up our minds and brings us closer in touch with nature, and at the same time gives us the raw materials that we need to build the new economy, a life-affirming economy. Part of it is raising the consciousness with cannabis, and part of it is just the raw material. Hemp is such an extraordinary raw material. Not only can you make everything and anything out of it the way you could with petroleum, trees or cotton; there’s all these other amazing things you can make out of hemp that you can’t make out of petroleum, trees or cotton, like graphene. There’s a company now that’s making hemp graphene, a semiconductor critical in making cell phones. It’s currently mined in Africa at an extraordinary cost, both financial and social. And now a company has figured out how to make it out of hemp. They’re talking of making houses and airplanes and cars out of hemp graphene. The whole outer parts of our buildings and our cars, maybe even our clothing, could be solar-collection devices. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about CBD. I’m not talking about consumable cannabis. That for me is a different conversation. When we look at industrial hemp in the United States, it is underdeveloped for one major reason, and that is because there is no infrastructure in existence to make sure the hemp crop is turned into the products that the market wants. I’ll give you one example. One of the greatest uses for hemp is in textiles. You can make these absolutely super high-quality textiles out of hemp. You can blend them with cotton, you can make it 100 percent hemp. Levi’s right now is making a jean that is 30 percent hemp fibers and 70 percent cotton. They would like to increase the amount of hemp in there. But the hemp fibers, they’ve had to cottonize them. This is an example of infrastructure. Hemp is the longest, strongest natural fiber on the planet, but because cotton has been such a dominant textile fiber in the United States for so long, we don’t have bast-fiber spineries. We don’t have a way to turn hemp fiber into a hemp yarn without doing what Levi’s is doing, which is basically blowing it up and making it into very, very short, and hence very weak, fiber, rather than trying to take advantage of the full qualities of hemp. Just because the infrastructure is not there. So once we have a sufficient commitment of vision and capital to build that infrastructure, then we’re going to see hemp disrupt every single kind of industry you can imagine. Just about anything that is made, hemp is going to disrupt. Because it’s such a great raw material when done at scale. Anything you can make out of other raw materials can be made out of hemp and it’s usually a much higher-quality product and no more expensive. Then there’s all these things that hemp does that nothing else does. Hemp sequesters 20 tons of atmospheric carbon for every hectare that you harvest. That means that we could stop Global Warming just by planting enough hectares of hemp and harvesting them. And then it makes really simple products like hempcrete, a remarkable material that is as strong as concrete, lighter than concrete, more mold-resistant, more fire-resistant, and less expensive, and not only carbon-neutral but carbon-negative. The hempcrete also sequesters carbon as it dries. Hempcrete is probably the place where we have the least infrastructure problem. I would say that the construction-materials sector is probably the place where we will see the disruption of existing industries by hemp in the shortest period of time in North America, because you don’t really need the complicated infrastructure to produce and use something that most builders can use on the building site.

THR: It’s been a pleasure, Mr. DeAngelo. Good luck to you and thank you for all you do for hemp and cannabis.

SD: Thank you so much. Be well.

A Great Day for Michael Thompson, Cannabis Offender

An interview with attorney Sarah Gersten

January 28, 2021, Non-violent Cannabis offender Michael Thompson at the age of 69, was released from prison after 23 years behind bars even though recreational cannabis use has been legal more than two years in Michigan. Before he was granted clemency, his first opportunity for release would have been at the age of 87.

Sarah Gersten, Executive Director and General Counsel of Last Prisoner Project and founding member of Michigan Cannabis Freedom Coalition, said, “Today marks a momentous occasion for Michael Thompson, his family, and his countless supporters throughout Michigan and across the country. Unfortunately, it also serves as a stark and somber reminder of the thousands of cannabis prisoners who remain behind bars while others profit off of a now legal industry.”

The Texas Hemp Reporter had the chance to catch up with Sarah a week later:

This is pretty exciting right?

SG: Very exciting, it’s been an incredibly exciting month and even more exciting week.

How often does this happen?

SG:  The release? We have two distinct release programs, one is the clemency commutation side of it, and then compassionate release. Those are the more frequent, more standard; you go through the judiciary. With the clemency campaigns it’s about crafting a compelling narrative of why someone deserves release, so to do that effectively you have to really get to know their family. With Michael Thompson over the past year I have gotten to know him on a personal level so well. We pushed this really robust campaign for him, and he became sort of a national symbol of this issue. For this to happen with someone that has become as high profile as Michael for me personally to be so involved to get to know him, his family it was once in a lifetime really.

That’s so amazing it’s giving me goosebumps. Do you think this is perhaps a benchmark for prisoners in this similar situation?

SG: It’s tricky because we are absolutely pushing these types of campaigns, but the bigger effort that we’re pushing both nationally and on a state level is for broader policy reform that enables the release of anyone still incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses. That work is not as personally satisfying because you don’t get to know the prisoners and the families as you do when you’re crafting a clemency campaign, but it will lead to broad systemic reform and impact thousands of individuals.

I was reading about this and he seems like a salt of the earth, pillar of the community kind of guy and it’s so tragic, but what is his plan now for the future?

SG: Before he was incarcerated Michael worked within his community; he had received awards from the NAACP for his work doing violence reduction in Flint MI, where he’s from, and working with teens involved in gang violence. He really continued that kind of work when he was incarcerated. He served as a mentor to individuals serving with him and people often thought of him as a father or grandfather. He should be retiring now, he loves to garden and be outside, but instead he wants to dedicate himself to criminal justice reform and prison reform.

Wow. Did you get to be there when he was released?

I was!  I was actually the one to drive him home! I think because I’m from New Hampshire and it was snowing in MI and a lot of the team was from the west coast. It was awesome.

Do you think this could cause a floodgate of releases?

I do. Through Michael’s case we’ve also been identifying other prisoners in MI that are there for cannabis offenses, that we can submit their clemency petitions for, and through Michaels campaign and advocacy around his case we’ve gotten buy in to reform this issue from the attorney general, to the lieutenant governor, several progressive prosecutors in MI, state law makers. So, through Michael, we’re already pushing this really broad campaign and doing the groundwork to get more individuals in MI out.

What is your goal with the federal work that you’re doing?

Mr. Thompson before his incarceration.

SG: It’s similar federally in that we had spent months advocating with the white house, with the Trump administration for clemency for our federal constituents and three weeks ago he granted clemency to several of our constituents, and I absolutely think that is going to be a symbol of the type of reform that needs to be enacted. What we saw is that the process is fundamentally broken, we need an effective, transparent process and especially for marijuana offenders. There is so much bi-partisan support to provide retroactive relief for those still incarcerated federally. And that was before this most recent signal from majority leader Schumer and other senators to legalize federally. 

Great! Do you see a timeline? Could this happen in the next year or two?

SG: If you had asked me that a week ago, I would have been on the fence, but with Senator Schumer coming out and wanting to make this an issue, within this congress, this year, I absolutely think it could happen.

Fantastic! What has been your biggest hinderance to your goals with the Last Prisoner Project?

SG: I would say stigma. There is still such a stigma attached to cannabis, even in criminal justice circles we often get push back because of our narrow focus. People don’t perceive this as the monumental problem that it is, and the other stigma is just around the idea of what we’re doing. There are so many people in this country, elected officials, that believe if you committed a crime, even if it’s now legal, even though the majority of Americans believe it shouldn’t be a crime, that you should remain incarcerated and that you don’t deserve a second chance. That is why it is so important to raise up the stories of people like Michael. For the people that have that mindset, so they can get his story, and that he deserves a second chance, and that he never deserved to be incarcerated in the first place.

Indeed. How can regular people on the street help? I see on the website you have a call to action to write letters, emails and calls, was that the biggest push for it his release? Was that how it eventually happened? Through the voices of the people?

SG: Yes, I think Michael’s case is a shining example of the power of grassroots organizing and advocacy. Without having hundreds of thousands of people write letters and make calls to the governor and the parole board he would still be incarcerated. People in this moment and climate are really jaded and think what I do won’t have an impact. Michael’s case should show everybody that it absolutely does make an impact and those calls were heard. We really harnessed the collective power of so many people to advocate for Michael.

I will look out for him in the news. He is such a figurehead for this community. It’s an honor to speak with you and I appreciate your time today.

SG: Thank you for telling the story.

For more information about the Last Prisoner Project and to get involved check out their website:

Images Credit:

Giacobazzi Yanez / Last Prisoner Project

  1. Michael Thompson and family pre-incarceration

2.Release day from left to right: Last Prisoner Project Constituent Donte West, Michael Thompson, Sarah Gersten, and Last Prisoner Project Board Member Erik Murray.

Sarah Gersten Executive Director and General Counsel at Last Prisoner Project