Cannabis and hemp users felt optimistic last week, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. However, when it comes to cannabis legalization, the future is still very uncertain, and our country has years of history to reckon with.
April 20 (aka 420) has traditionally been a cause for celebration and community among cannabis users. But rather than celebrate, House of Wise and Last Prisoner Project are turning our attention to the urgent need for change. Below, we break down the state of our nation's cannabis laws, the need for reform and clemency at the federal level, and how you can make a difference.
The Harsh Reality of 420
While many Americans plan to commemorate 420 by legally consuming marijuana, an estimated 40,000 people in the U.S. are still languishing in prison cells for cannabis-related offenses. House of Wise recognizes that it is a privilege to profit from the sale of hemp products, and we believe that it's our moral obligation to help combat cannabis-related incarcerations. We work closely with the nonprofit Last Prisoner Project to elevate the stories of nonviolent cannabis offenders and raise money for its Family Support Fund.
In a letter from prison, Edwin Rubis, a Last Prisoner Project constituent, described what 420 means to him. "Cannabis enthusiasts will celebrate 4/20 around the world," says Rubis, who is serving 40 years in federal prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense. "In America, thousands will toke up with their friends in their respective states where cannabis is legal. Marijuana businesses will take advantage of the holiday to sell and market their products."
"Not me. I'll be going through the same rigorous, monotonous routine I've gone through for the past 8,760 days, waking up to see fences upon fences topped with coiled razor wire and gun sentries, reminding me of the place I've been condemned to live in until God knows when."
Sadly, stories like Rubis's are not at all uncommon. Thirteen days before Humberto Diaz was sentenced to seven years in New Jersey, voters approved a constitutional amendment to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in his state. Stephanie Shepard, whose father died while she was locked up, was released from prison in California in 2019 and greeted by dispensaries that looked like Apple Stores. Sean and Eboni Worsley lost five years and thousands of dollars over a mere 10 grams of cannabis. Although Sean — a decorated and disabled veteran — had a medical marijuana card in his home state of Arizona, the couple was charged with a Class C felony while driving through Alabama.
Pictured: Sean and Eboni Worsley; photo by Emily Eizen
A Call For Justice For All
This 420, House of Wise and Last Prisoner Project are shining the spotlight on the human toll of the war on weed with a campaign called Justice For All. In order to change policy and remove stigmas for cannabis and hemp users, we're working together to promote a petition urging the Biden Administration to create a Presidential Cannabis Clemency Board. (Take action by adding your name here.)
We are also raising money for the Last Prisoner Project Family Support Fund and the Worsley family with a limited-edition product release (coming to House of Wise April 13) and the auction of an NFT, launching April 15. Sign up for a special waitlist to have access to the limited-edition product drop and the NFT auction.
“The direct harms and collateral consequences of a cannabis conviction send ripple effects of trauma throughout each family that is negatively impacted," says Mary Bailey, Managing Director of Last Prisoner Project. "Those families deserve support, community, and the comfort of knowing that there are folks out there fighting for their loved one's freedom."
A Racial Disparity in Cannabis Arrests
On March 31, the House passed The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would remove marijuana from the federal government's list of controlled substances and do away with many of the federal criminal penalties associated with cannabis cultivation, distribution, and possession.
Today, recreational cannabis is legal in 18 states and Washington, DC. But between 2010 and 2018, the U.S. made 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests, according to the ACLU. Even if the MORE Act passes the Senate — which experts say is unlikely — the effects of our country's decades-long war on weed will reverberate for years to come, especially in communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by arrests and incarceration.
The very prohibition of marijuana in the United States has racist origins, and "the vast majority of modern marijuana enforcement activity has been directed at Black and Latinx communities," according to a 2020 Last Prisoner Project report entitled "Criminal Injustice: Cannabis & the Rise of the Carceral State."
Though white and Black people tend to use marijuana at similar rates, Black people in the U.S. are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even in states where cannabis is legal.
The MORE Act proposes many positive steps, but it also lacks many of the changes needed for real, comprehensive reform. First, it's important to note that the MORE Act is a decriminalization bill, not a legalization effort. If the bill were signed into law, regulated adult-use cannabis sales would not automatically become legal nationwide. Instead, states would still have the authority to decide whether to decriminalize cannabis or allow regulated sales in their state.
The MORE Act vs. Cannabis Clemency
We're encouraged by and supportive of the MORE Act and look forward to following its fate in the Senate. But in the meantime, House of Wise and Last Prisoner Project are focused on amplifying an existing petition for a Presidential Cannabis Clemency Board. The clemency petition pushes for a much larger impact of relief, given that the MORE Act lacks eligibility criteria and may not benefit a large swath of federal cannabis prisoners.
"As federal authorities currently have little authority to expunge, seal, and/or set aside federal cannabis-related convictions, clemency grants represent the most effective way to ensure relief for individuals currently or formerly incarcerated for those offenses," says Stephen Post, Campaign Strategist at Last Prisoner Project.
The Presidential Cannabis Clemency Board — which should be staffed with individuals with lived and/or professional expertise — would be tasked exclusively with helping administer pardons and commutations to people with federal cannabis-related convictions. The board would also provide data, insights, and learnings necessary for a more expansive use of this approach.
"Not only would this effort provide much-needed relief for the thousands of individuals with federal cannabis-related convictions," says Post, "but it would also serve as an example for state authorities, who can use their power to grant retroactive relief to exponentially more people."
The most important thing to keep in mind as we approach the 420 "holiday" is that the repercussions of a cannabis conviction, whether at the federal or state level, have long-term effects on individuals and their families. As Post told ABC News, "The sentence doesn't really end after we get those folks out of prison."
It's imperative that we continue to push for legislative change while supporting nonprofits such as Last Prisoner Project, which also focuses on record clearing and re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated. Here's how you can help:
- Add your name to the petition urging the Biden Administration to create a Presidential Cannabis Clemency Board
- Sign up for a special waitlist to have access to the House of Wise x Last Prisoner Project Justice For All campaign, including a limited-edition product drop and upcoming NFT auction, both of which will raise money for the Last Prisoner Project Family Support Fund and the Worsley family
- Support Last Prisoner Project by donating directly directly or by buying from House of Wise, which contributes a portion of all its profits to Last Prisoner Project's Family Support Fund