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Righting the Wrong: An Extraordinary Tale of an Unlikely Alliance

At a time where discrimination is loudly denounced with the request for justice and equality for minorities at the forefront, stories depicting this injustice are making headlines almost daily. At the same time, most US states are removing the prohibition restrictions on cannabis and are opening the gate to a flourishing new industry that may very well revive the economy post-pandemic. 

A question inevitably arises— how do you right the wrong for those incarcerated for simple possession when people everywhere will have the liberty to consume or do business in cannabis? We, at MyJane, decided to resurface the extraordinary and emotional story of Weldon Angelos— who was condemned to 55 years of imprisonment for selling $900 worth of cannabis— to his childhood friend.

 

Weldon’s story represents so well the core of the prohibition’s extreme injustice, a story so powerful that even one of the Koch brothers, a right-wing billionaire known for being very influential in the Republican Party, is now teaming up with Weldon Angelos in a giant effort for the release of individuals incarcerated for cannabis offenses. 

Cannabis has been prohibited in the United States since the implementation of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937. This policy stance has historically created a ripple effect on society, including the overcrowding of the American prisons, with a disproportionate number of inmates imprisoned for cannabis-related, non-violent offenses— who are otherwise law-abiding. 

Cannabis is number three as far as the US’s most popular drugs, after alcohol and tobacco. According to federal surveys conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 70 million Americans have used cannabis in some capacity, whereas 17 million currently use it on a monthly basis. (Source: National Household Survey on Drug Abuse). So does that mean we should jail 17 million people?

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports Divisions Annual Report, “Crime in the United States,” there were 695,201 cannabis arrests in 1997 (the most up to that point). 87.2% of the arrests constituted “possession” and 12.8% were for “sale/manufacture” that include manufacture for personal use and possession of sufficient amounts of cannabis (typically over an ounce) with the “intent to deliver,” even if the plants were intended for personal use only. (Source: FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports)

In comparison, the total number of arrests in 1997 for all violent crimes— rape, murder, robbery, and aggravated result— combined was hardly more than for the cannabis arrests, at 717,720. (Source: FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports)

All of this finally culminates into the introduction of Weldon Angelos, who we interviewed on our podcast over a year ago, and who in 2004 became the national face of criminal justice reform after being sentenced to a 55-year-prison-term for selling just under $1000 worth of cannabis.

Weldon Angelos was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was exposed to music by his mother’s side of the family (many of whom were musicians who played backup for famous jazz and country musicians) in Nashville, Tennessee. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 15 and was quickly drawn to the hip-hop music and culture of the city. 

Angelos eventually developed his musical talent into creating hip hop beats, writing songs, and later recording his own songs. In the mid-1990s, he started meeting and working with several high-profile hip-hop industry people, including Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

By 2002, Angelos’s career was quickly ballooning into a major success— he was signing with pop and R&B artists and had just released an entire album he had produced with Snoop Dogg. At that point, he had been living in Salt Lake City again for some time, and in that time had been slowly introducing hip hop culture to the area.

Local authorities took notice of Angelos and other hip-hop industry members and grew afraid of the hip-hop culture, believing it would disrupt the “orderly living” of Utah. They began an investigation of their drug use. Unable to garner strong findings, they hired an informant—an individual who had grown up with Angelos in his childhood years— on three occasions, and the childhood friend asked Weldon to find him some cannabis for his personal use. 

Although not a known drug dealer, Angelos agreed to sell an estimated $300 worth of cannabis on three separate occasions to the informant— wherein the transactions were taken by a federal prosecutor and turned into a 20-count indictment and a 105-year prison sentence. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Upon his conviction, the judge ruling his case— Paul Cassell of US Court for District of Utah— decried the sentence in a 65-page opinion piece, calling on then-president George W. Bush to correct the sentence as he was sentencing Weldon (the first time in history that a judge had done such a thing). The judge called the sentence “unjust, cruel, and irrational,” noting that the sentence was much longer than the sentences of convicted murderers, terrorists, and child rapists. 

Weldon Angelos’s case became a cause championed by Senators Cory Booker and Mike Lee, leading news organizations like the Washington Post and Rolling Stone Magazine, and even the right-wing Koch Brothers. Their pushback against the unjust sentence led to Angelos’s early release in 2016, after serving 13 years in prison. 

After his release, Angelos has become a leading activist in making the criminal justice system fair for everyone. He founded and is president of The Weldon Project, whose mission statement is as follows:

 THE WELDON PROJECT is dedicated to funding social change and financial aid for those who are still serving prison time for cannabis-related offenses. Through extensive partnerships throughout the legal Cannabis industry, THE WELDON PROJECT launched the MISSION [GREEN] initiative to raise the bar for awareness, social justice, and social equity by providing unique ways for cannabis businesses and consumers to participate in a nationwide campaign aimed to provide relief to those who have been negatively impacted by prohibition.

Last summer, he met up with Snoop Dogg and right-wing billionaire Charles Koch over Zoom to create a bipartisan coalition that could ultimately change the dynamics of the cannabis legalization debate among established politicians in the near future. (Source: Politico) 

This coalition is called the Cannabis Freedom Alliance, and includes Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers; the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank; a trade organization for the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce; and the Weldon Project, Angelos’ nonprofit. (Source: Politico) 

“We need 10 to 12 Republican senators,” Angelos has said. “With Koch’s influence, I think that’s a likely possibility.”

 

The alliance will be pushing for removing penalties for cannabis offenses and ensuring that people from the underground, illicit market will be able to transition to a regulated market. Additionally, they want regulatory frameworks that promote free markets and low tax rates. (Source: Politico).

In 2018, the federal government passed the Farm Bill, legalizing the cultivation of Hemp, its transportation across states, and the derivative products made from hemp— as long as it contains less than 0.3% of THC, the only intoxicating compound of the plant.  

However, its cousin “marijuana” that contains a higher THC ratio is still considered a Schedule 1 drug— the same level as heroin— even if most states have embraced the legalization of it medically or recreationally under strict regulations.  

Both plants (hemp and marijuana) have compounds that could lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs if federally funded clinical trials were being deployed.  Ironically, although cataloging the cannabis plant as Schedule 1, meaning that  it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” the federal government has patented the plant under the number U.S. Patent 6,630,507 which implies the potential medical benefit of the plant to treat a series of issues like stress, stroke, autoimmune disorders, age-related problems, just to list a few.  

At a time where stress, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s are making up what seem to be another human pandemic, let’s hope for an acceleration of cannabis legalization at the federal level, and voice our support for the Weldon Project to right the wrong of those who paid a very high price for its recreational use. 

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