Working to Remedy Drug Policy: Q&A with Sarah Gersten, Part 2


This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Education and awareness can take many forms. Through various work with criminal justice reform advocates and cannabis businesses, Last Prisoner Project (LPP) aims to shift the paradigm around cannabis incarceration and its effects.

Below, Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary continues its conversation with Sarah Gersten, LPP’s executive director and general counsel, about these issues.

 

Patrick Williams: LPP is working with Rudi Gammo and Michael Thompson in trying to get them released and their criminal records expunged. Could you talk about the Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Release Campaign partnership with the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party and the Redemption Foundation? Could that work expand upon or accentuate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signage of clean slate bills in October?

Sarah Gersten: This is a campaign that was established after Last Prisoner Project had been working in Michigan for months on Michael Thompson’s case. Michael Thompson is a 69-year-old currently incarcerated in [a] Michigan prison. We had submitted his clemency application in January. We’re just now nearing the finish line with that case, and it took us longer than anticipated, but … we were able to get so much momentum around Michael’s case and really get it into the public [consciousness]. It’s a case that, I think, shocks the conscience, especially when you look at Michigan, a state that is now fully legalized, [and] key lawmakers in that state, like Gov. Whitmer [and] Attorney General Dana Nessel, have come out in support of not just legalization but these kinds of criminal-justice efforts that go in tandem with legalization, like clean slate. But what has not occurred in Michigan, despite movement on things like the clean slate package, which is an amazing first step, [is anything] to provide retroactive release for currently incarcerated cannabis prisoners like Michael Thompson.

So, through Michael Thompson’s case, we started working both with the Redemption Foundation, which was actually started by Ryan Basore, who is an operator in Michigan, but he’s also a former cannabis prisoner—he was incarcerated for years for a nonviolent marijuana offense—as well as the Michigan Cannabis Caucus of the Democratic Party. Working with those local organizations allowed us to work more closely and advocate to the key lawmakers in that state and really broaden these efforts to push forward a campaign to release anyone who is currently incarcerated on marijuana-related offenses in that state. We’ve actually gotten further in Michigan on our clemency program than any other state. I think that speaks to, again, that there is a willingness and a desire by the lawmakers in that state to really bring restorative justice to the cannabis industry and ensure that they’re not legalizing without providing retroactive release for anyone that has been harmed by unjust cannabis laws and policies. But of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done to get to that point. We’ve made a lot of progress, but now we need to push forward to get everyone in that state released.

We’ve … launched the Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Release Campaign. Part of that is working with local companies and fundraising to assist in the legal efforts to secure the release of those still incarcerated in Michigan. But another part of it—what we’re fundraising for—is to actually provide support for those that are still incarcerated. Some of the funding goes directly to their commissary accounts. But another big piece of it is to support their families. Rudi Gammo is a great example. Rudi was actually operating a medical dispensary; he was providing cannabis only to licensed patients. But he was still incarcerated for [a sentence of 5 and a half] years. Obviously, that is extremely detrimental to his family, especially during COVID, to lose someone who’s an earner for their family. Then, on top of that, Rudi’s son was recently diagnosed with leukemia. To be dealing with that, amidst COVID, when you have your father, who’s incarcerated, is just incredibly difficult for his family—devastating for his family. So, part of this fund is also to support family members like Rudi Gammo’s family, who are suffering because they’ve lost a family member due to cannabis prohibition.

 

PW: The Last Prisoner Project’s policy adviser/director Natalie Papillion, who is also founder and executive director of The Equity Organization, wrote the paper “Criminal Injustice: Cannabis & the Rise of the Carceral State.” There was a portion where she wrote, ‘Drug-related enforcement is one of, if not the, biggest drivers of police harassment, misconduct and violence in America. And yet, drug policy rarely comes up in conversations around police reform.’ Could you talk about why that is?

SG: This is something that I found really interesting coming myself from more of the legal criminal justice sphere and moving into cannabis and cannabis policy. Unfortunately, I really think there is still that same stigma we see just in the public around cannabis. That bleeds into criminal justice reform and I think social justice and racial justice work. There is still sort of a stigma and an unwillingness to focus more narrowly on issues of drug policy reform and certainly, specifically, cannabis reform, which just doesn’t make sense when you’re looking for tangible solutions—because as Natalie articulated in that publication, we know that this is a huge driver of arrest rates, of incarceration rates, in the U.S., but even just interactions with the police.

When you look at some of the most egregious examples of police violence that have been at the forefront of conversations around racial justice and policing reform, particularly over the summer, and when you look at Breonna Taylor’s death, that no-knock warrant that led to her murder was a result of the War on Drugs. The militarization of our police forces is a direct result of the War on Drugs. When we talk about reimagining policing, reinvesting from policing back into communities, dismantling the drug war and dismantling cannabis prohibition should be key solutions that both criminal justice organizations as well as lawmakers should be looking to, to further those initiatives. But we don’t really see that happening. So, that’s a gap that certainly Last Prisoner Project, [and] other organizations like Drug Policy Alliance, are trying to push more into those spheres and to the relevant changemakers.

But I think, when you look at the way that we talk about criminal justice reform, [and] policing reform, more broadly, you don’t often see people calling out cannabis prohibition as a way to rectify those harms. I think more and more, that’s becoming a part of the conversation, especially among certain progressive lawmakers right now, but that is only just beginning. We certainly hope that the work of the Last Prisoner Project, and certainly that study that Natalie published, will help make that more of a central piece of the conversation.

 

PW: Green Thumb Industries created the video “Waiting to Breathe” about LPP’s reentry coordinator Evelyn LaChapelle, who was incarcerated and now works at Vertosa. Could you talk about how the idea for a video came about as part of a partnership with a cannabis business?

SG: When we partner with cannabis companies, obviously a piece of that is to get financial support for this work; the lifeblood of any nonprofit is funding. But beyond that, a huge thing that we always try to do with partner organizations is raise awareness and educate not only cannabis consumers, but really the broader public. GTI actually came to us with the idea of, [in conjunction] with a big fundraising campaign that they held for Last Prisoner Project in September, … do a really big awareness campaign. One piece of that was the “Waiting to Breathe” video, which I thought was phenomenal in telling Evelyn’s story and why the cannabis industry really has a duty to give back to individuals like Evelyn who have suffered from incarceration for cannabis offenses. But they also had the great educational campaign that was happening on social channels, through digital marketing, but also in their retail locations.

So, in retail locations for September, across all of GTI’s locations, they were highlighting different figures in the cannabis movement, so, people like Brownie Mary [and] Dennis Peron, who were at the forefront of this movement and also intersected not just legalization, but the social justice aspect of legalization—cannabis as medicine for the LGBTQ community, who was suffering with HIV/AIDS. … [They highlighted] the racial justice implications of cannabis legalization and why legalization goes way beyond just having cannabis acceptable as a recreational good, but all of the broader social justice implications that come with legalization, and … different state initiatives, like Prop. 64 in California, as well. So, really the aim of the GTI campaign was to raise awareness of why legalization is a really crucial tool for social justice reform, and highlighting some of the ways that that’s already been occurring across the U.S.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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