Cannabis Criminal Justice Reform & the Last Prisoner Project

We have a big problem in the US. Our federal, state, and local corrections systems have record numbers of people filling their cells and holding rooms.

Yet, despite the legalization and/or decriminalization of various forms of cannabis, there are legions of people still sitting in jail for cannabis-related drug offenses that are no longer crimes.

In this post, we take a look at:

  • What a cannabis prisoner is and why there are so many
  • Why our country needs cannabis criminal justice reform
  • The Last Prisoner Project and what they’re doing to address the issues
  • How you can get involved and help bring about beneficial changes
Last Prisoner Project Informational Video - LLP will not stop and will not rest their criminal justice reform efforts until the last cannabis prisoner is set free.

The Cannabis Incarceration Crisis

Let’s get a little background and context first. You’ll see the evolution of the cannabis incarceration problem as it reaches its fever pitch.

Evolving & Varying Cannabis Legality

Cannabis comes in two main varieties: marijuana and hemp. Marijuana is the one that's usually heavy on THC and known for its psychedelic effects. Hemp, which is high in CBD, is typically used to make CBD oil products and will not get you high.

At the federal level, hemp and its derivatives are legal so long as they contain no more than 0.3% THC. Marijuana, on the other hand, is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act.

Legality of marijuana and hemp-CBD at the state level is an ever-changing patchwork of laws. All states allow for federally-legal CBD, though some have significant restrictions on possession and use. 38 states permit some version of medical marijuana and 19 have legalized recreational marijuana.(1)

The War on Drugs

Classification as a Schedule I drug means that the government deems it to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. So, in 1971, the Nixon administration declared a “war on drugs” in response to concerns about drug abuse and addiction. (The War on Drugs was a detrimental movement, a war on human rights and science that started as far back as the late 1930's with Harry Anslinger's, "I want to be top cop, so I need an issue," (Reefer Madness period) and resurged in the early 1970s with Nixon's, "We can use this against the antiwar vote.")

Over the next three decades, the War on Drugs resulted in increased arrests, incarceration, and spending on law enforcement. In 2013, President Obama issued a memo urging federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders with offenses that could lead to lengthy prison sentences.

However, many aspects of the War on Drugs remain in place today. For example, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance and possession of even small amounts can lead to arrest and imprisonment.

The Prison Industrial Complex, Incarceration for Cannabis & Racial Disparities

The US has far more people passing through (and staying in) the correctional system than any other nation.(2) The reasons for this are complex and many.

A huge number of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, with drug crimes accounting for the majority of arrests and convictions.(3) Despite being a minor offense compared to other criminal offenses (and arrests being down in recent years), cannabis-related drug arrests are consistently one of the most common reasons why people land in prison.(4)

According to a 2020 report by the ACLU, there are “extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests.”(5) It is a problem, both historical and ongoing, even in states where cannabis is legal or decriminalized. They found that, nationwide, Black people are more than 3.5 times as likely to be arrested than white people with similar usage rates.(6)

Thousands of Cannabis Prisoners

As mentioned, laws change over time.

A meaningful portion of inmates were arrested, convicted, and continue to serve sentences for cannabis-related offenses that are no longer crimes. Even if they get released from jail, many are forced to continue living with the stigma and other burdens of having a criminal record. These individuals violated laws that have been reversed, removed, or replaced — the same actions today wouldn’t result in any legal repercussions.

These folks are often referred to as “cannabis prisoners” (or “marijuana prisoners”).

The Last Prisoner Project, Championing Cannabis Legal Reform

Thankfully, where there are problems, there are also people working hard to create solutions — like the Last Prisoner Project. They say it best, so here’s how LPP describes itself and its raison d'être:

The Last Prisoner Project (LPP) is a national, nonpartisan non-profit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. We aim to end America’s policy of cannabis criminalization, as well as to repair the harms of this discriminatory and counterproductive crusade. We redress the past and continuing harms of these unjust laws through legal intervention, direct constituent support, advocacy campaigns, and policy change.

LPP Advocacy & Activism

LPP estimates that there are at least 40,000 people incarcerated for cannabis in the US.(7) You can imagine that the number of cannabis prisoners is much greater.

Given this, and knowing the life-long hardships that come with a criminal record, the Last Prisoner Project is committed to helping people who are negatively affected by unjust cannabis laws and policies. They take a three-pronged approach to this:

  • Release from jail. LPP pursues clemency, compassionate release, and resentencing strategies to free cannabis prisoners.
  • Records expungement. Clearing a former inmate’s criminal record helps reduce barriers to getting employment, housing, financial assistance, etc. — hence it’s high on LPP’s priority list.
  • Reparation for re-entry. LPP knows that proper support upon release cuts recidivism and helps set cannabis prisoners up for future success in life.

This trio of strategies not only chips away at the cannabis prisoner problem, it also helps address the overall incarceration situation in the US and the racial disparities woven throughout.

(Photo credit: Honeysuckle Magazine)

Michael Thompson freed after 25 years in prison in Jackson Michigan for convictions stemming from a marijuana sale. Michael has joined in LPP's advocacy for criminal justice reform.

Ways You Can Help

There are countless opportunities to get involved in cannabis-related social justice efforts. You can show your support for cannabis criminal justice reform by:

  • Donating money or in-kind goods
  • Volunteering your time, energy, or expertise
  • Joining rallies, protests, and similar community- and awareness-building events
  • Engaging with your lawmakers to encourage legislative change
  • Helping to educate others on the merits and uses of cannabis, social and justice inequalities, and other hot-button topics surrounding cannabis criminalization and its consequences
  • Patronizing minority-owned canna-businesses (like Ardent and Marley Naturals)
  • Embodying a cannabis-accepting lifestyle that’s free of stigma for this plant or those who use it

Get creative! The more we do to further this cause, the more mainstream cannabis becomes and the more pressure there is on the powers that be to implement positive changes.

From Cannabis Incarceration to Cannabis Intervention

A staggering number of people are incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses. Many of these infractions are no longer crimes.

Still, many individuals convicted under these now-defunct laws continue serving time and/or facing post-incarceration challenges due to a criminal history. And alarming racial disparities make it much worse for Blacks and other minorities.

The Last Prisoner Project is passionately devoted to cannabis criminal justice reform. It works tirelessly to help free cannabis prisoners — both from the confines of a cinderblock cell and the burdens of a criminal record.


FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive

What is cannabis criminal justice reform?

It’s advocacy, activism, and other actions aimed at getting cannabis prisoners released from incarceration, having cannabis-related offenses removed from official records, and creating meaningful life opportunities for formerly-incarcerated people.

What is a cannabis prisoner?

It’s someone who is or was incarcerated for a cannabis-related offense and/or is burdened by a criminal record associated with that offense.

What is the Last Prisoner Project?

LPP is a nonpartisan non-profit working towards cannabis criminal justice reform.

Have something to say? Let's talk on social!

About the Author

Green Bee Life staff writer logo

GBL Staff Writer

Green Bee Life is your resource for accurate, transparent, and up-to-date content and products related to cannabis.

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