CACannaBizCon 2019: Five questions with the Last Prisoner Project
The National Cannabis Industry Association’s annual California Cannabis Business Conference 2019 took place last week in Long Beach, CA, and The Elegant Stoner was in attendance, covering the show as it happened. The show expo featured lots of different businesses involved in the cannabis space, including many that don’t really sell consumer products — they offer help to growing cannabis businesses, or support the industry in other ways. Even though we mostly focus on cool stuff consumers can buy, we still wanted to highlight some of the people and businesses at the show, and so we’re going to be posting a series of quick interviews from around the CACannaBizCon 2019 show floor, asking people at the show what they’re up to, and what they’re thinking about in the cannabis industry.
What's your name, title, and what do you do?
My name is Sarah Gersten, and I'm the executive director of the Last Prisoner Project. We are a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform in the cannabis space. We really focus on three program areas: Clemency, which is getting people released from prison who have cannabis-related offenses. Expungement, so actually clearing and destroying their records, and we advocate for automatic expungement of anyone with a cannabis offense on their record. And then Re-entry, so actually building vocational and educational training programs for people that have been involved with the justice system to find employment and have them in the cannabis industries.
How did you get involved in cannabis?
Our founder, Steve DeAngelo, recognized the disparity between him being able to profit and make millions of dollars off of cannabis [and the rest of the world]. At the same time as he was founding his company, Harborside, doing these big deals with millions of dollars on the table, he had a friend who was incarcerated for selling cannabis. So recognizing that, he really wanted to insure that the industry was doing something for the folks who were still incarcerated. And so he had this mission that he wanted to free every last cannabis prisoner. That was the idea for the project, and he found other individuals who were interested in this -- cannabis executives as well as artist and musicians who were passionate about in this. He hired myself -- I'm an attorney, and my background is in cannabis law and policy and criminal justice reform. And so we just launched last month, and we're brand new.
What do you like about the industry?
One thing that I'm heartened by is that as more and more states legalize, we're seeing almost every state that is now legalizing includes provisions for social equity programs, as well as for expungement. Of course we advocate for that to be automatic, which isn't always happening, but at least states now, unlike when Oregon, Washington, and Colorado first legalized, they weren't necessarily including provisions for social equity, provisions for criminal justice reform. That's a start.
It's also heartening to see that on the federal level, a lot of the legalization bills that have been introduced include criminal justice reform provisions, so that's great. Unfortunately, we're seeing that a lot of the social equity programs still have failings. We're not seeing states necessarily include automatic expungement, which is really critical. In states that have included expungement, 90% of eligible individuals don't apply for expungement, so really the onus needs to be on the state to just automatically clear those records rather than putting the burden on the individual.
What's the biggest obstacle you're facing?
I think a lot of what we hear from, especially conservative lawmakers, is that 'well, it was a crime when they did it -- why should we expunge their records, or why should we let people out of prison?' And I think what we have to do is change public perception. It's really critical, and this is why awareness is so important to what we do, to make sure that state and federal executives that can make change, recognize that the public wants people to be released, the vast majority of the public wants cannabis legalized and doesn't want people to still be incarcerated or feeling the effects of the criminalization of cannabis. I think just changing the stigma around cannabis and around incarceration is paramount.
Anything that you've seen that's cool lately or that you want to recommend?
We partner with a lot of organizations that work in either criminal justice or social equity in the industry. Cage Free Cannabis is another organization, and we're both part of the Equity First Alliance, which just hosted National Expungement Week. So those are two organizations that I would encourage people to also check out.
Thanks for reading! You can see all of our NCIA CACannaBizCon 2019 interviews all in one place with our CACannaBizCon2019 tag. Stay tuned for more interviews with cannabis business owners and professionals, straight from the show floor.