Cannabis legalization is sweeping the world. One in three Americans now live in a state where the plant is legal, and dozens of countries around the world have legalized or decriminalized the plant. It’s easier and safer than ever to buy an ounce, an edible, or toke in public.
But in this green wave, thousands of people are getting left behind – people imprisoned for cannabis. Despite 19 states having fully legal access to marijuana, the US continues to put people behind bars for small cannabis charges.
Cannabis arrests in America
It’s no secret that America has an incarceration problem: the USA leads the world in both the total number of prisoners and the percentage of the population incarcerated. And cannabis is one of the leading charges.
In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that 52% of drug arrests were for cannabis charges – an astonishing 8.2 million arrests between 2001 and 2010. The report also noted that cops arrested someone for cannabis, on average, every 37 seconds.
In an updated report from 2018, the ACLU found that cannabis arrests dropped to account for 43% of drug charges, but 6.1 million arrests were made between 2010 and 2018. They also found that cannabis charges weren’t trending downward – 100,000 more people were arrested in 2018 for cannabis than in 2015.
State-by-state legalization isn’t enough
The trend of legalization isn’t enough to stop cannabis arrests. In states where marijuana is still illegal or restricted, the ACLU found arrests increased between 2010 and 2018. There is also the underlying truth that the war on drugs has always been a war on minorities. Black people in the US are at least three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis charges, a statistic that varies, and often increases, depending on which state you look at.
A cannabis charge can ruin lives. Some people are “lucky” enough to get off with a misdemeanor that carries a year in jail, but can find themselves buried under legal fees and fines owed to the government. And if you’re charged with a felony, you’re pretty much out of luck in finding a job or place to live. A cannabis felony even takes away your right to vote, temporarily or indefinitely in 27 states!
And all of that is if you’re able to stay out of the prison system. The US also has an astonishingly high recidivism rate, the rate at which people return to prison. With little support for people released, two out of three parolees are arrested again within three years and 50% return to prison.
All of this paints a bleak picture for people charged with cannabis arrests. And in a time when 37 states have medical cannabis programs and 19 states and Washington DC have fully legalized cannabis, no one should be sitting in jail for a plant that’s making people millions of dollars.
The Last Prisoner Project
These statistics should shock you, but they shouldn’t make you feel hopeless: there are steps you can take today to help people imprisoned for cannabis charges.
The Last Prisoner Project is a national not-for-profit founded by cannabis advocates and brothers Steve and Andrew DeAngelo, committed to freeing every person jailed for cannabis. The organization works to “end America’s discriminatory and counterproductive policy of cannabis criminalization, as well as to repair the harms of this unjust and ineffective crusade.”
The Last Prisoner Project mission has three prongs: support, release, and reentry. The group helps individuals every step of the way by providing:
- Support during incarceration,
- Assistance with clemency (a release from prison or commutation of the sentence), compassionate release and resentencing programs
- Reentry services to released individuals
6 ways you can get involved, today
The Last Prisoner Project matches prisoners with pro bono attorneys, submits letters of support, helps create record expungement bills, and provides financial support to people when they’re released. The group works tirelessly to deliver justice to people – and you can help
- Write a letter. The Last Prisoner Project has a database of constituents who are currently imprisoned. These people are facing decades-long sentences, cut off from the rest of the world. Using the LPP guidelines, you can reach out to someone and write them a letter to let them know they are not forgotten and they are being fought for. It’s a quick and easy way to make a difference in the life of someone incarcerated.
- Take action. When there is a chance for freedom for a particular prisoner, the LPP calls on you to take action. Action items can include calling or emailing elected officials, district attorneys, and sharing information to spread awareness.
- Sign the petition. The LPP has created a step-by-step plan for the federal government to grant clemency to the thousands of people incarcerated for cannabis charges
- Donate. The LPP provides financial support to both incarcerated and freed individuals, providing commissary funds, pro bono attorneys, and grants. A donation of any amount supports these funds (and they accept cryptocurrency.)
- Make a donation at a dispensary. Dispensaries across the country participate in LPP’s Roll It Up for Justice program, where all donations go directly towards clemency programs. Find a dispensary near you and make a donation during your next visit.
- Purchase from LPP-affiliated businesses. Partners for Freedom are businesses that have joined the LPP cause and support their efforts.
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