Justice For All? Last Prisoner Project Accused
By Kaitlin Domangue
I’m (Kaitlin) quite shocked I’ve never read this article before.
And at first, I thought it was a clear hit piece against the cannabis industry. I almost didn’t give it the time of day.
But, when I dug deeper, I saw the complaints against the Last Prisoner Project (LPP) were made by respectable and accomplished cannabis advocates, organizations, and professionals. This wasn’t an outside attack.
And for that, I have to give it my time.
So hear me clear on this: I don’t have anything against LPP, that’s not why we’re sharing this. My job is to talk about what’s important in cannabis.
Even if the allegations are still being disputed, which for the record: they aren’t. At least not publicly. Last Prisoner Project denied them, and it’s just not being talked about anymore.
I’d be lying if I said this article didn’t raise red flags or questions for me, though.
Here’s the backstory
Supporting the Last Prisoner Project in the cannabis space is almost a given. Their cause and the need for their cause are obvious: nobody should be locked up for cannabis and right now, people still are.
Plenty of celebrities, cannabis influencers, and even formerly-incarcerated people themselves advocate for & support the Last Prisoner Project. Former prisoners have received direct financial support from the organization, and credit LPP for the life they have now.
LPP is dripping with brand partners and endorsements from all over the cannabis industry, praising them for their efforts.
But, other cannabis activists and professionals aren’t so convinced. The most consistent allegation from this article is that LPP takes credit for the real work other activists are doing – including their entire mission and reason for organizing.
“They’re trying to appropriate the work of folks that are doing the work, said Bonita Money, the founder of Los Angeles-based National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance. “They’re wasting a lot of our time and resources.”
To be honest with you, I have no outside knowledge of this except this POLITICO article. The article comes fully loaded, though, and people aren’t remaining anonymous about their dislike for LPP.
I also, to the best of my rememberance, didn’t hear much chatter or question about these allegations from inside the industry when the article was released, and I do wonder why that is.
Did we intentionally overlook it because we are emotionally invested in this cause? That’s a question I’m asking everyone, including myself.
Steve DeAngelo founded the Last Prisoner Project in 2019. He also co-founded one of California’s largest cannabis operations, Harborside, in 2006.
In the allegations, DeAngelo was mentioned by name and accused of dishonest behavior. He parted ways with Harborside about a month after the article was released.
Whether that’s related or not, I’m not sure.
I will say, DeAngelo had been distancing himself more and more from Harborside before this article, at least online, and became more vocal about LPP.
The Weldon Project & DeAngelo
You might have heard of a similar non-profit organization, The Weldon Project, founded by Weldon Angelos. Angelos was arrested for selling cannabis and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. He was fully pardoned by former President Donald Trump in 2020.
Angelos convened a meeting between prisoner advocates and representatives in February 2019 – just two months before the Last Prisoner Project was founded. DeAngelo was at the meeting and expressed interest in joining The Weldon Project’s “Mission Green” initiative.
He went on to start the Last Prisoner Project in April 2019, never joining Mission Green’s board.
“I declined the invitation because Mission Green was unable to provide me (after several requests) with the information I needed to be effective as an industry liaison and fundraiser,” DeAngelo said in an emailed response to questions from POLITICO. “Proof of non-profit status; budget; operational plan, and a list of officers.”
Stephanie Le, a former volunteer for The Weldon Project, says she started to get uncomfortable when DeAngelo’s lawyers began asking her very specific questions on the phone – like requesting the contact information of the first 10 hires at Mission Green.
Le says Mission Green’s workers are all volunteers. “We don’t have any money”, Le told POLITICO.
The allegations don’t stop there
Money of NDICA said she recalls feeling shocked at one of her conversations with LPP Director, Mary Bailey. Bailey told Money one of LPP’s goals was to get returning citizens to work in the cannabis industry.
But, that often isn’t possible, which is the whole reason for the work of these advocacy groups. The federal government still recognizes cannabis as illegal, which means felons with cannabis charges aren’t eligible to work in cannabis in many states.
Money recalls feeling baffled and upset that an organization that wants to do this work didn’t even know this basic fact, and felt LPP could just donate money to NDICA if they really wanted to get the work done.
Money ended the relationship and talks of future partnerships with LPP after hearing stories from other advocates, including Lynne Lyman, former California director of the Drug Policy Alliance and co-founder of Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership (LARRP).
“What LPP is doing is so problematic because they are coming into a space and soaking up the very scarce resources that exist,” said Lynne Lyman.
Lyman was approached by LPP in 2019 to collaborate on helping released prisoners successfully reenter society. She spent months developing a pilot program for LPP when they, according to Lyman, declined to move forward.
LPP says they don’t believe they declined to move forward, but rather Lyman wasn’t able to provide the details and documentation they needed to begin a partnership.
“We weren’t willing to continue to give up our intellectual property and our time to a partner who told us that they weren’t going to fund LARRP’s role in it,” Lyman said. “Of course, we would have provided a more detailed budget at some point if they agreed to the more basic components.”
Lyman shared initial proposals and details with LPP, and copies were also shared with POLITICO.
Lyman said LARRP’s experience with donations from inside the cannabis industry has been “horrific” and said they’ve raised maybe $7,500 total from cannabis donors.
Torie Marshall, co-founder of National Expungement Works (N.E.W.) (formerly National Expungement Week) recalls similar experiences. Marshall says LPP asked to be a part of N.E.W’s sponsorship deck and that they would fundraise for them.
According to Marshall, that never materialized, but LPP says otherwise.
“We did help them fundraise. We made a lot of connections [for them] to potential corporate sponsors,” LPP’s Executive Director, Sarah Gersten, told POLITICO.
Marshall actually laughed when POLITICO mentioned this to her. She said the only partnership through LPP was MedMen and considered it a problematic sponsorship.
MedMen has long drawn criticism from the cannabis industry. Forbes went as far as to headline an article, “MedMen Is Everything That’s Wrong With Legal Cannabis.” The company boasts a 2-star review on Glassdoor, with over 200 votes cast.
Like Money and Lyman, Marshall needed funding from the Last Prisoner Project – and they didn’t get it. In LPP’s 2020 financial disclosure, they reported a total of over $2 million in revenue collected.
According to Lyman, the cannabis industry and advocates don’t equally distribute donations among all organizations. And from what we’ve seen, it does appear that LPP is the default non-profit cannabis organization to give donations to.
“What we are missing is funding. We don’t need you to come in here and reinvent the wheel. They refused to hear that message,” Lyman told POLITICO.
This is virtually the only piece of negative information about The Last Prisoner Project we’ve ever seen online. I scoured the internet to find additional claims to create my own opinion and nothing.
This article was released at the tail end of 2020 and we’re almost halfway into 2022. The Last Prisoner Project hype isn’t slowing down, and I don’t see it happening any time soon.
This article was a lot to take in.
To start, these sources are very credible. They aren’t anonymous, they came forward and used their names. Some even provided supplemental documentation to back up their claims.
And, they aren’t anti-cannabis. They’re advocates. Professionals. Activists.
These are people who wanted to work with LPP in some form or fashion, but instead they felt burned. It’s not just one story, either. There are multiple stories and some are similar, like LPP needing more documentation for at least two scenarios.
Like we said before, this is the only piece of negative information we’ve ever seen online about LPP, so we aren’t suddenly anti-LPP here at The Green Paper.
We are, however, in total support of smaller organizations like LARRP, N.E.W., and NDICA. Voices like Bonita Money’s, Torie Marshall’s, and Lynne Lyman’s matter, and again, their claims appear credible and consistent.
We will also continue watching LPP and other cannabis organizations more closely, and call out bad behavior when we see it.
We also will continue to spotlight these non-profits alongside larger ones like the Last Prisoner Project and use our platform to uncover the truth the best we can.