Cannabis continues to be a tool for arrests and incarcerations across the United States, which is an issue that the nation is just beginning to address.
Despite the rise of legalization in most states, scores of individuals remain locked up for largely nonviolent offenses. Often, so-called offenders receive lengthy sentences composed of questionable allegations, charge stacking, and mandatory minimum sentences. In doing so, people are torn from their families and communities, often for decades at a time—if not their entire lives.
Presidents Obama and Trump have taken steps to expunge, commute, or grant clemency to several cases in recent years. A sign of progress for the nation, their actions do not take from the fact that thousands remain in prison for cannabis. And even when released, the toll taken on the life of that individual and their loved ones is often irrecoverable.
American Drug War Statistics
Drug arrests continue well into the “Green Wave” of cannabis legalization despite reform efforts gaining traction across the U.S. in the past few years.
The troubling scenario follows recent data. In 2015, small-amount possession arrests outpaced violent crimes. Pew Research Center reports that arrests continued into 2018. That year, four-in-ten drug arrests in America came from cannabis, with 92% of the bookings stemming from possession. All the while, Black people and other minorities continue to be arrested at a higher rate than whites committing similar offenses.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) reports that Black people made up 27% of drug law violations in 2017 despite representing a little over 13% of America’s population. DPA also noted that 2016 saw 450,000 incarcerations for drug law violations, which helped push the U.S. prison population to 2.3 million, the highest in all the world. To put the figure in context, Luxembourg’s roughly 613,000 citizens could make up the U.S. prison population almost four times over.
Signs of positive change have come about. Pew reported in 2020 that the prison rate is at its lowest in two decades, marking a 34% decrease since 2006. However, Bureau of Justice Statistics data highlights a disparity that continues in the system, with 1,501 Black prisoners for every 100,000 Black adults as of 2018.
The Lives Behind The Statistics: The Release of Weldon Angelos
Statistics are just one aspect of the ongoing prison epidemic gripping the nation. Behind those figures are thousands of lives and millions affected over the course of the decades-long drug war. For some, their records have received revisions after spending years locked up. Others remain in prison, with some holding onto their last few chances for a change of fate.
Salt Lake City native Weldon Angelos received a commutation of his mandatory minimum 55-year federal sentence from President Obama in 2016 after serving 13 years. In 2020, President Trump would grant him a full pardon. The reversal of fate came after years of lobbying from advocates and influential figures like Snoop Dogg, political analyst Van Jones, Utah Senator Mike Lee and Koch Industries.
While the Presidential decisions changed his status and arrest history, nothing could replace what Angelos lost over what was essentially a couple-hundred-dollar pot deal and allegations of a gun being present over the course of two transactions.
The allegations of a gun turned Angelos’ case. He was charged with 20 crimes, carrying a 105-year sentence. The jury would convict him on 13 drug, firearms, and laundering charges, netting him a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence that even his judge did not support.
“Sentencing should be individualized in some sort of fashion, where the judge can take into account unique factors of the individual, because not everyone’s alike,” said Angelos. He added that not everyone comes from the same background or privilege where other career options are possible.
The sentence cost Angelos his budding hip hop production career, which saw him working with West Coast rap elites like Snoop Dogg before his conviction. His incarceration also led to his relationship with the mother of his children ending and over a decade separated from his then-six and seven-year-old sons.
“I missed the chance to raise my sons,” said Angelos, who also saw his father pass away just months before he could gain his release. He was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral services.
Today, Angelos is an advocate for sentencing reform as part of his Weldon Project endeavor. In addition to assisting the incarcerated, Angelos and his group fought for the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, which addressed a series of sentencing parameters, including lowering mandatory minimums.
The Fight For Freedom Continues: Parker Coleman
The goal is to have every incarcerated cannabis offender freed, but the prospect of release can look rather bleak for many. Like Angelos, many sit in prison on charges that were far from clear-cut. Parker Coleman Jr. is one of those individuals.
Incarcerated since 2010, Coleman Jr. is serving a 60-year sentence. Coleman Jr. was sentenced in North Carolina and currently resides at Beaumont USP in Texas. His charges include conspiracy to distribute cannabis and money laundering. He was also charged with a gun crime, though advocates argue it was never on his person during any deals and that the gun wasn’t registered to him.
His supporters include his parents, Parker Sr. and Tracey, and advocate Cheri Sicard, who called the ruling “a de facto life sentence.” In a blog post, Sicard stated, “In the entire case, only one person got caught with 26 pounds of weed, and that one person was not even on Coleman’s 21-person indictment.” She added, “Out of those 21 people, Parker was only acquainted with two of them.”
Coleman Jr.’s family—a military veteran father and nurse mother—and Sicard are joined by supporters like Kyle Kazan, CEO of cannabis brand Glass House Group. Kazan, a retired law enforcement officer, was inspired to take action in light of the past year’s social justice efforts, which mostly centered on the policing and sentencing of Black individuals like Coleman. He noted the disparity between himself, a white male, and Coleman’s case–noting he makes millions in revenue while Coleman’s life wastes away in jail.
“Parker is doing hard time, more than 10 years now,” said Kazan.
Describing fellow inmates inside with him, Kazan said, “He’s got 50 to go with rapists and murderers.” Kazan added that Coleman’s previous cannabis possession conviction nor the debated gun charge attached to his current sentence gave him pause, saying he thoroughly read the case file and is convinced Parker should be pardoned. In January, Kazan’s company sent a letter to President Trump seeking a pardon for Coleman Jr.
Coleman’s parents, who live in North Carolina, touched on the pain of not seeing their son—with the hurt extending to his family that includes grandparents in their 70s, one of whom is on dialysis, and a young niece. The pain can be felt by Coleman Jr. himself, with his family saying that they have not seen him since he was moved to Beaumont USP in Texas. In the five years he’s been in Texas, the Colemans say just one friend has been able to visit. His parents’ last attempt to see him came while he was incarcerated in Kentucky, a five-hour drive from their home.
“They went on lockdown,” recalled Tracey Coleman of the day they went to see Parker. “So, that was five hours that we had to turn back around and go home,” she added, saying that the physical pain on her husband was apparent during the trip.
The latest attempt to release Coleman was unsuccessful, as President Trump did not include him on his list of pardons and commutations. For his part, Trump did include 12 additional cannabis-related prisoners in his last list of pardons before leaving office.
Those looking to help release Parker Coleman Jr. and other nonviolent cannabis offenders should contact their local and state representatives, as well as researching advocacy groups to volunteer or donate to the cause. Of the many groups fighting for the incarcerated include the Last Prisoner Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Cage-Free Cannabis.