“These are not criminals, but heroes,” said cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo as he welcomed Richard DeLisi and Michael Thompson on stage before the Blues Brothers show in Las Vegas last Thursday night.
The concert was a special event organized by MJ Unpacked, a new cannabis conference connecting industry brands and retailers on the executive level.
Over 1,000 people were in attendance, spread throughout the juke-joint inspired House of Blues, sitting at high-top tables, on the red velvet seats in the second story mezzanine, and gathered on the hardwood paneled dance floor—all ready to share some laughs and good music in the name of cannabis reform. And it was a big night for the cannabis freedom movement. Approximately $70,000 were raised for DeAngelo’s nonprofit, the Last Prisoner Project, which was founded in 2019 with the mission of releasing prisoners serving time for nonviolent cannabis offenses.
“There are 40,000 people in jail for trying to help people by touching a plant,” DeAngelo cried out to the audience. “Don’t forget our sisters and brothers as wealth is created.”
DeLisi and Thompson were both released through the support of the Last Prisoner Project (LPP). Before last Thursday’s show commenced, they briefly shared their moving stories with the crowd. Prior to DeLisi’s release in December 2020, he was the longest active cannabis prisoner in the U.S., serving more than three decades of a lifetime sentence. Thompson, released in January 2021, served more than a quarter century of a 60-year sentence in a Michigan prison.
“It’s broken, and it needs to be fixed,” Thompson said, referring to the justice system that failed him. “Those in prison for marijuana need to be free!”
With tears in his eyes, Thompson struggled to get his final words out. A supportive DeAngelo with an arm around his shoulder stood next to him, rubbing his back, encouraging him to go on. Audience members cheered and applauded as Thompson thanked LPP for their support—for reuniting him with his family, for keeping him alive.
Throughout the concert, slides were projected onto the stage’s backdrop, reminding and educating attendees of the problems that exist, what LPP is working towards, and how people can help. One slide read, “Despite widespread legal marijuana reform, cannabis arrests are actually increasing in several states,” and another offered people a way to take action: “Text freedom to 24365 to donate to Last Prisoner Project.”
Mary Bailey, the Last Prisoner Project’s managing director, firmly echoes the importance of education and sharing the powerful stories of those who are trapped behind bars for something that is now legal.
“We know that the injustice that is cannabis-related incarceration can only be counteracted by public attention paid to—and subsequent advocacy around—the issue,” Bailey said. “Leveraging the power of events like the Blues Brothers Benefit Concert is a critically important tool when helping to grow this desperately-needed public awareness, and we’re immensely grateful to those whose hard work and dedication made the concert a resounding success.”
Sitting down with DeAngelo in the venue’s “James Brown Room,” he provided a rundown of what these funds are used for: covering expenses for the families of prisoners; release grants; legal assistance; job placement.
“It really depends on what that particular prisoner needs, and then we attempt to provide that,” he said.
Cannabis & The Blues
Following DeAngelo’s on-stage introduction, the mood lightened. The Blues Brothers themselves—Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi—swaggered on stage donning black suits, shades and matching hats for an entertaining revue in which they reenacted the characters of Elwood and Zee Blues from the popular 1980 comedy release of the Blues Brothers. Backed by the talented Sacred Hearts band, the famous duo got in full character with chest slams, bare belly rolls, and some hilariously bad moves.
“It tickles me to dance with this 6’4” Canadian and sing alongside him,” Belushi said. “It just brings joy to my soul in every show. Of course, performing at the House of Blues, which we opened as The Blues Brothers, is a highlight, as well. All House of Blues venues are just so sexy and exotic and filled with the resonance of all the Blues legends and spirits.”
At the close of the concert, Aykroyd auctioned off the opportunity to come on stage and sing the hit song “Soul Man.” Grow Generation’s president Michael Salaman and board member Paul Ciasullo both pledged $12,000.
George Jage, founder and CEO of Jage Media, which organized MJ Unpacked, says booking the Blues Brothers made sense for a number of reasons.
“When we were developing the show, we wanted to make sure we had a strong mission-based philosophy. We are here to serve the industry, but we also need to help support the industry and advocacy groups,” Jage said. “I’ve always been impressed with Mary Bailey and Steve DeAngelo. I think it’s one of the most important causes for our industry.”
Belushi has also served as an official advisor to the Last Prisoner Project since May 2020. He first got involved with the nonprofit after a venue fell through for another LPP fundraising event DeAngelo was organizing in Los Angeles.
“He called me in the morning, and we had the first fundraiser at my house that night,” Belushi recounts. “I was so deeply moved. I said, ‘How do I get in on this? I want to help.’”
In his LPP advisory role, Belushi says he helps spread awareness for the cause. And as a longtime entertainer turned cannabis farmer, he’s in an ideal position to help.
“My job is to get the word out,” he says. “Let’s free these men and women—now!; Write letters, donate money. Also, I call and speak with the survivors of the failed war on drugs when they’re released. I participate in fundraisers.”
Belushi is intimately connected with both music and marijuana. For him, it’s about more than operating a profitable business. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about healing.
“I’m hoping to create confidence in cannabis with the curious, the new consumer. I believe in the medicine,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who’s suffering. Everybody. And the pathway to healing and the medicine of cannabis can really aid those who are suffering, including their families who witness the suffering.”
Needless to say, cannabis matters to Belushi, as it does to countless other Americans. And in the words of Steve DeAngelo, “If you’re not a Black or Brown person and you love cannabis, and you live in North America, you’ve got a debt to pay.”
The Short and Long Plays
As cannabis legalization picks up steam and continues to spread across the U.S., the Last Prisoner Project is making it known that pardons granted for cannabis offenses aren’t occurring at the same rate. Not a single cannabis law has passed that provides for the release of cannabis prisoners.
It seems logical that when laws are passed legalizing cannabis, those incarcerated for the thing that is no longer illegal (cannabis, in this case), should be automatically released. It should be written into the laws.
DeAngelo explains why this isn’t the case.
“I’ll tell you why it hasn’t been automatic. It’s because there hasn’t been an organization like LPP at the table,” he says. “There are a huge number of problems. The default position of the justice system is that once a prisoner is sentenced, they have to serve their sentence unless there’s some other judicial procedure that intervenes and releases them.”
He goes on to discuss the structural impediments in the way, the main one being that there are too many people in power opposed to releasing prisoners.
“One of the things the prohibitionists like to do is talk about how you can’t reward people who broke the rules, and you can’t let criminals go free. They have this point of principle about it,” he said. “Because there hasn’t been a voice that’s strongly advocated for the release of cannabis prisoners, it’s been an overlooked issue for many years in the cannabis freedom movement.”
With no amnesty laws currently in place, LPP is focusing on other ways to release prisoners.
“When you’re doing work to get prisoners out, you have to fight on multiple levels simultaneously,” DeAngelo said, explaining that they’re also looking ahead, working to ensure that new cannabis laws passed in the future include the release of prisoners.
“We’re lobbying to make sure that happens, but it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “We have people in prison, so we have to use other ways to get them out. One is with the clemency process.”
In every state that’s legalized cannabis, the governor has the ability to release all cannabis prisoners with the stroke of a pen. However, it’s not so easy. Clemency, as DeAngelo explains it, is a difficult process that comes down to a lack of resources. To grant clemency, a legal document must be filed for each prisoner, and each document must be individually reviewed by someone in the governor’s office. With hundreds of clemency petitions and maybe one person reviewing them on a part-time basis, the road to freedom is slow.
“So, what we’ve been doing is working with governors’ offices to try and get them to agree to a mass release of cannabis prisoners instead of considering these petitions one by one,” DeAngelo said.
The work of LPP is limited, however, to states where adult-use cannabis is legal.
“It’s basically impossible to argue for the release of prisoners for something that’s still a crime. It’s only been since we’ve had those victories that we really have the ability to go to the governors and say, ‘Hey it’s not illegal anymore, you should really release everybody who’s in prison for the thing that’s not illegal anymore.’ If it’s still illegal, you don’t have an argument to make. It’s really only in the last few years that it’s been possible to make this argument in an effective way.”
Life After Bars
While releasing cannabis prisoners is the Last Prisoner Project’s main objective, it doesn’t stop there. Much of the group’s work is dedicated to ensuring that prisoners are given opportunities after they get out.
Craig Cesal and Evelyn LaChapelle, both in attendance at the Blues Brothers show, were locked up for never even touching the plant. In 2001, Cesal was charged with conspiring to distribute marijuana because his Chicago-area truck repair company was working on a Florida company’s feet of trucks used to haul marijuana. He had no prior convictions and was sentenced with life without the possibility of parole.
“It’s too typical, unfortunately,” Cesal says. Twenty years later, on January 20, 2021, Cesal received clemency. The Last Prisoner Project hired him as a Program Associate the day he walked out of prison.
“They were instrumental in convincing President Trump to grant clemency to me and 11 other marijuana lifers,” he said. “I had no faith in it. I didn’t believe it until I walked out of the front gate of the prison.”
Meanwhile, LaChapelle, a former high-end hospitality professional, was charged for depositing profits from unregulated cannabis sales into her bank account. She was tried in North Carolina—a state she had never even been to—and sentenced to 87 months in jail, all of which she served. An attractive young woman with a solid résumé, she landed a position as a sales and catering coordinator at the Omni, which was in line with her career path before going to prison. Because she was working in California, she wasn’t required to include any past criminal charges on her application. However, with a quick Google search, a co-worker found her case online and reported her to Human Resources. She was fired immediately.
“It reminded me that I have a résumé, I have a degree. I have experience, and I still got fired,” LaChapelle said. “So, for the men who come out of prison, for the people who look the part of a felon—because I don’t look like a felon, even with all that going for me, I was fired—what does that say about our second chances?”
As businesses are built and cannabis becomes more deeply woven into our daily culture, Steve DeAngelo and the Last Prisoner Project team are working hard to ensure that the very people who introduced the plant to our culture are not forgotten.
“For me this is a global issue. We take it everywhere. The Last Prisoner Project is part of an overall approach that I have,” DeAngelo said. “I want the cannabis industry to be more of an engine of change and justice than an engine of wealth creation and concentration of money and power. That’s what I really want.”
As made evident by last week’s turnout at MJ Unpacked and MJBizCon in Las Vegas, there is a huge amount of opportunity in this burgeoning industry. But the onus is on the consumer to engage and stay informed rather than simply having your product of choice delivered to your door, sitting back and indulging.
“We have this amazing opportunity with cannabis to really do something different and build an industry that spreads wealth widely and empowers people who are usually disadvantaged. We can do that,” DeAngelo says. “If we cannabis consumers insist on that and vote with our dollars and educate ourselves, then that can happen. If we don’t do that, if consumers don’t do that, if we don’t engage, it’s just going to be another fucking industry that makes money for some rich people who have more money than they need already.”