Fab 5 Freddy & The War on Drugs

In this episode we dive deep into some of the systemic issues of racism and oppression that have occurred through the War on Drugs. You’ll hear my conversation with the formerly incarcerated Bernard Noble, and hip hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. Their partnership with Curaleaf created a social enterprise called B Noble that uses the sale of legal cannabis to begin righting the wrongs done during cannabis prohibition. Following my conversation with Bernard and Fab, I sat down with the Executive Director of the Last Prisoner Project, Sarah Gersten to help bring context to War on Drugs and its impact, and the importance of the work Bernard and Fab are doing within the legalized cannabis industry.

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Fab 5 Freddy [0:02]
It’s an incredible fight. We’ve been winning some battles, but the war to end the war on drugs is still ongoing.

Benn Marine [0:14]
From Dirigo Collective. This is Responsibly Different. Sharing stories of Certified B Corporations and our journey of joining them in leveraging business as a force for good.

In this episode, you will learn and hear firsthand accounts about the impacts of the war on drugs on people of color. You will hear from Hip Hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy Bernard Noble, who was formerly incarcerated for cannabis possession, and the executive director of the last prisoner project Sarah Gersten, if you’re wondering what this has to do with B Corps, it’s everything. A major tenant of the B Corp certification is the impact on community and bringing an intentional lens of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to the work a business does. The criminalization of people of color via the war on drugs has locked many out of the ability to participate fully in our economy and political systems. That’s why policies like Greyston’s open hiring Rhino Foods payment advanced and so many more are so important. If you’re new to this podcast, and you’re scratching your head wondering what the heck a B Corp is, let me fill you in. Certified B corporations are businesses that balance purpose with profit. To become certified businesses must pass a rigorous third party certification that measures how their policies and decisions impact their workers, the environment, customers and their community. Some B Corps you’re probably familiar with include Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s, Stonyfield Organic Grove Collaborative, Goodie and over 4,000 more in over 153 industries in 77 countries, all sharing one common goal, to use business as a force for good. And that’s what this podcast is all about. So on today’s episode, we are highlighting a social enterprise that is not a certified B Corp that we do encourage them to explore it. And they have a very important mission to liberate and support those that have been victimized by the war on drugs. Bernard Noble, after who the brand B Noble is named, was sentenced to over 13 years in prison and hard labor for possessing the equivalent of two joints of cannabis. Bernard served over seven of those 13 years and joins us in this episode to share what his experience was like. Joining Bernard is hip hop and street art movement pioneer Fab 5 Freddy has produced some of the most iconic music videos. You remember that Snoop Dogg video where Snoop turned into a dog? Yeah, that’s fabs work. He also hosted the program, Yo MTV Raps in the late 80s, which put hip hop in the living rooms of not just Americans but a global audience, and shot the ratings of MTV through the roof. Fab and the folks at Curealeaf were instrumental in getting Bernard sentence reduced. They’ve created this partnership to utilize the legalization of cannabis in serving and supporting the 1,000s of people that have been impacted by cannabis as prohibition. 10% of all sales from the be noble brand are going right back to serving the formerly incarcerated and getting those incarcerated out of prison. One last note before we jump in, to honor Bernard story, we felt it was really important to keep it intact as he tells it, which means we did not edit for language or content. If you have young listeners or folks that prefer not to hear explicit language or language that depicts violence and racism, now would be a good time to hit the pause button and grab some headphones. We’ll also have the transcript for this episode available in the show notes at responsiblydifferent.com if you prefer to read it rather than listen to it.

I love to kind of get us started. I’d love to hear about B Noble, and Bernard your story and how you kind of all came together.

Bernard Noble [4:15]
It was it was a real crazy journey to kind of fast forward and I’ve I’ve been living here in New Orleans all of my life. And one day came where I had an incident that where I was arrested for marijuana. I went through a rigorous process of being kept in side of the walls of the penitentiary here. Things got real dark for me real real darker. Eventually, it started to start shedding light. I got picked up by a couple of programs on my sentencing call weekend and it left from there and in progress to me in a full circle having the opportunity to find out that Fab 5 Freddy, and this big hedge fund guy Jason from Dan Lowe. These guys got attached to my case. And that’s the one life turned around from me because little did I know, of Fab and the team put some stuff together and the B Noble brand was invented. And is is just, it was amazing. And Fab was the guy that was behind the scenes that put the work together for me. So, it’s just it’s it’s a real honor to be doing what I’m doing and this is because of this guy right here. You know, he get all hype because that’s, that’s my man behind the brand. And I don’t have to watch him on TV no more I know him

Benn Marine [5:55]
That’s amazing fab. How did you get involved in Bernards case?

Fab 5 Freddy [5:59]
Well, I was making a film called Grass Is Greener about the history of cannabis in America and it’s connection to music from jazz, which was born in Webb. Bernard is also born in Louisiana, New Orleans, and I wanted to follow that story. Through all cutting edge American music. Cannabis has been a dominant part of all the cool, coolest people have all indulged in the plant. But then you have this incredible heinous, barbaric criminalization, which was all racially motivated. And then doing the research for the film, I learned that because jazz was bringing people together from different ethnic backgrounds. Racists did not want to see that happen. And so they came up with this whole demonization of cannabis that the reefer madness era in the 20s, and 30s. And this guy named Harry Anslinger, who was behind all of that got cannabis criminalized in 1937. So, I followed that post story. But I needed to also look at the criminal justice situation, which is disproportionately affected black and brown. And Bernard’s case was one of several I just, I looked at, to focus in on to get the whole story. And that’s how I then just I’d seen that we did get that was a vice show where the gentlemen that was hosting that show focused on Bernard’s story, but Bernard was still in prison. So, he was with it with his family. And it was real moving, sad story. Keep in mind, this all happened to Bernard over two joints worth of cannabis and the mandatory minimum laws. Yes, he had been in some trouble before all nonviolent possession cases to joints worth worth a week gets him a 13 year sentence, hard labor. And I just was like, this is the case. And so that was it, I focused in on it. And then after interviewing his family, if you see Grass Is Greener, you’ll see it’s a very like touching emotional moment. Then we heard he got up a row, and I knew we were going to took the crew, we flew back to Louisiana to capture that moment of him walking out of prison. And that’s how we first met. And that motivated me a call to action, if you will, to want to really do something, be a part of the business but also tried to affect change. And then in touch with Bernard ever since he walked out of prison, talking to him constantly sharing these ideas, and hooked up with Curaleaf. And now the product is on the shelves. It’s amazing. And Massachusetts and Maryland right now. And by the way, there’s no doubt that it’s irrelevant cause but also the cannabis is fire. Like it’s really top shelf, not shake. Typically, when pre rolls, they use the stuff that falls off the plant when they’re packaging up flower and all that other stuff. These guys are using the whole flower, the actual choices, but I went up to the facility in Massachusetts in Boston over the weekend, blown away.

That’s amazing. That’s amazing. And I know that 10% of B Noble proceeds go to to organizations that aim at undoing the damage done to people by the war on drugs. Can you tell us more about the mission of mass cultivated and changing perception?

Yeah, these are two orgs. Mass Cultivated is basically taking people from disadvantaged, you know, situations caught up in the hood, trapped in that on and that’s in that cycle of just, you know, trying to get out and then pulling people up and out training them to work in the cannabis field teaching them how to how to be cultivators and doing all that stuff. So that’s what Mass Cultivated is doing and the organization in general Lin is doing something similar. They’re working with people that have been incarcerated, and kind of helping them get their feet under them get back, get records expunged. And so these are the first two states that we’re in. But by the fall, the B Noble is going to be in every state that has legal cannabis. So we’ll be looking at focusing in other organizations helping the formerly incarcerated nonviolent cannabis offenders get their lives together, get their records expunged, and once again, learn how to participate in this booming business. So that’s the focus. And we’re going to aggressively do

Benn Marine [10:39]
Our audio got a little broken up here. So just to fill you in Fab went on to talk about the role that Bernard will be playing within the B Noble brand.

Fab 5 Freddy [10:47]
Bernard’s going to be going into prisons, as an example of somebody that was victimized, but also giving that encouragement, and helping you know, people because he could talk that talk, he went through that, through that hell that too many people, unfortunately, are trapped in as this now is becoming a multi billion dollar business.

Benn Marine [11:10]
I saw at the end actually, of of your film, there were some really interesting stats that I feel like are important for folks to know. And Bernard, I’d love to hear your kind of reflections on some of these pieces. That in the year, Bernard that you were released from prison, over $1.4 billion in tax revenue from legal cannabis sales happened in the United States. And in that same year, over 600,000 people, predominantly people of color, were arrested for cannabis possession. I’m curious, your kind of your thoughts and insights as somebody who has has been victimized and part of that,

Bernard Noble [11:48]
Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and, and that whole thing stems from miseducation being misinformed And for us, it’s all it’s totally political. And I’m just excited. I’m so excited now, to be a part of something that I’ve been lied to, I’ve been beat up about, I’ve been put in a trap, so they can make the profit off it. But now I have the platform, I don’t feel bad about what they’ve done, how they kept me in the dark, and kept people misinformed. But now in the went full circle, where is my turn to educate my people on the benefits, the truth about the plant is, is not harmful, you know, and it’s a really good feeling that I have a verse and I don’t have to hide, so all of the billions and billions of dollars that they made, I’m a part of it now. I was a sacrifice for to be who I am today to share this with the people of color. And, and that’s my mission. So I’m excited. They wanted to keep us out, keep us in a dark and remind me of the prisons, the shitholes that I was in, um, they told him they believe that not educated people of color in prison. So I wasn’t allowed to read books. I wasn’t allowed to educate myself in libraries, because they knew just like Harry Anslinger, but knew that if people learned how to read people know the truth about the plant, we wouldn’t be scared no more. So I’m that person now to bring the light. So the whole thing, and it’s Be Noble or be gone. You know?

Fab 5 Freddy [13:42]
I just want to add on top of what Bernard just said, I saw some response to some of the information we’ve been pushing out about his case and his story. And one of the comments that were made when people saw the posts of how much time Bernard was given for two joints to cannabis. This is typically going on in a lot of southern states. A lot of these same states where slavery was that was the dominant money maker. And, you know, this was the foundation that America was actually unfortunately built on black slave labor. And it’s it’s sad that these things are still going on in the south. The fact that Bernard wasn’t allowed to read. Slaves were not allowed to read and study and become aware. And Bernard Actually, it’s amazing when he tells a story about you know, if you’ve heard about Angola prison in Louisiana, it typically is described as one of the worst prisons in the country Bernard explains how he wanted to go to Angola. And if you could just explain to them, Bernard why you wanted to go from the prison you were in and go to Angola.

Bernard Noble [15:00]
Yeah, of course. So, you know, like I said, I have I have a good understanding now about how politics are run is running our country that the shithole that I was in, is described as satellite camps. They refused us education because of knowing what we do. So the places were so bad, I couldn’t get pencils, I couldn’t get markers, I couldn’t get important levels. They wanted me with nothing that would help me educate myself to fight them. So, I wrote to every warden, secretary in the state to try and get to the most treacherous and vicious place on the planet that we have for prison in Louisiana is called Angola. But in Angola, I was gonna be able to get education out of came out being a penitentiary paralegal, like I have friends right now, that came from mancala. Robert Jones is a legal paralegal attorney that came from Angola, Angola has the education for men, and anybody basically, that goes in there. You can you can really learn from, but they wouldn’t accept me because they said I didn’t have enough time Angola wanna keep you there with the trades that they showed. So I beg to go there and go to where I knew, I would have gotten some education I could have got killed, but I wanted to go there to read and learn and and learn more about the politics that that runs prisons and and had a foot on our life. So yeah, it was for education purposes. I wanted to go there and go.

Fab 5 Freddy [17:01]
Two joints of cannabis and this is just one of too many stories that people have to deal with. So once again, that’s the motivation for the B Noble brand is of course to take care of Bernard Noble and for him to be able to take care of his family, but also to donate to organizations that are fighting and raising the awareness. People just don’t know. I didn’t know. I mean, he told me they took him out to fields and literally wanted him to pick cotton. Bernard was like no, you take me to solitary confinement. I will go to the hole and do I don’t know he spits it out, like how many 120 days.

Bernard Noble [17:43]
100 – 120 days, you know, and again, that was those small prisons, we call them satellite camps. And you could just take a look at it. They swap us they sent us to a cousin they sent us today neighbors and it’s like, we look like a damn bunch of herds. So when when I got there, I was I was dragged out in a dog van. And you know, when the doors open, people don’t know, modern day slavery is so up to date. We just didn’t have a bunch of raggedy wagons and you know, whips but they still have chains and they have big old guns that have clips in it. So they got me out to this big old wide place. I felt the van stop when the doors open you know cuz they got the windows blacked out. They don’t want us to see the streets or nothing. When they open a door. When I got out of the van. It was like I never seen snow before because it does snow here I see snow TV. So when I got out of the van t it really look like it was snowing to me because I saw a bunch of men of color sitting on buckets with rags ties on their head. It remind me is like old slavery picture – bunch a black man singing hymns on buckets. So,he dragged me out the van and redneck told me he’s a well boy and he called me a boy. He called me a fucking boy. And when he told me (audio unclear). So, I looked at him and he told me you could get to picking and I say pick what? He say this goddamn cotton. Oh, and I just respond with boss. I got 14 years basically because it was a few months from being 14 years solid was 13 years and a third. So I was pushing 14 years to the max and I told that man you can take with the whole because I’m not picking cotton. And they’re so racist against people color he didn’t hesistate. He dragged my ass to the van, and he left me there for about hour, but when he got me back to the jail, they threw me in the room. And I learned to manipulate myself in how to live in a room that size of a bathroom for over 120 days. And that was my skin when they wanted me to modern day slavery myself. I said oh no, player, I got 14 years you can take me to the damn hole. So that was my crazy man thing that helped me make it through the prison because I refuse to work like that. And I got beat by them (explatives) They done slapped me upside my head out. I’m hog tied when I when I get dragged in a room. Anyway, you know, so I took a few bruises. But I told him, you could be my body, but I turn it to no slave or so I locked up in that little room and they didn’t care about doing it. So I learned to love it.

Benn Marine [20:55]
Wow. Well, thank you so much for sharing that, for sharing that with us. It’s such a powerful story. And it’s I think it’s so important for people to hear that that is still happening and that it is so pervasive in our country and and incarceration rates and how I mean, it’s so it’s so huge, and it’s so important for people to know about. I’m curious for both of you, what are some ways that we can work to kind of break down that system and work to make because I think the other problem too is? Okay, great. So like I live in Maine, and we have we’ve legalized recreational I can go down Oh, shop and buy all the weed I want, right? And it’s totally legal, and it’s fine. And the majority of those business owners are white. I think it’s like, I can’t remember where I read this. But I think it’s like, maybe 1% of legal cannabis shops are owned by people of color. Right? What are what are some ways that also knowing a lot of the folks are listening might be business owners, what are ways that business owners, and even people voting with their dollars when they go to spend money on marijuana? How can they ensure that they’re supporting communities of color that have been historically, you know, disadvantaged by this very product that they’re enjoying?

Fab 5 Freddy [22:06]
Exactly. Well, that was once again, this is the motivation you hear like a little snapshot of what Bernard dealt with for seven years. 13 years sentence hard labor. Now we know I didn’t realize what hard labor meant in the south, they still have people picking cotton using that prison labor. Too many companies do that. I guess the main, the first and most important thing is to be aware of the core campaign that we have. And the messaging is be educated. Be informed, be active, be noble, like literally and figuratively, to kind of be aware and then reach out to your local politicians to your representatives. Clearly here in New York, since my film has come out, and I’m proud to say that my film has had a bit of influence in New York now has legal cannabis Kassandra Frederique, who is now the director, the National Director of Drug Policy Alliance, she was only the New York Director when she was featured in my film. And as a New York lifetime resident, I didn’t even know that people were getting kicked out of public housing, they can have their kids taken away over over cannabis. And so the fight was was was relentless for a good number of years. And we finally got a vote. And I’m told we now have the most progressive cannabis legislation in the country where records will be expunged is a concerted effort to make sure that 50% of the dispensaries and the cultivation will be owned by people of color and those that have been disenfranchised by these cannabis laws. I mean, you know, this was the fight for a long time, decades, people have been fighting on the front lines to make these changes happen. And we now join that fight. So it’s a unique situation where we’re providing a quality product, high quality, no pun intended, but also his messaging on the packaging. He has a QR code, you can go to b-noble.com right now and get some more information. We we just launched a couple of weeks ago, but but like we will be sharing information giving people you know, more info about what they can do. Hopefully, what Bernard and I are planning is to have a screening at the White House. So we want to try to get an audience with our president who I voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and to try to raise the issue so that we can take cannabis is categorize in the federal schedule in the same category as heroin. Come on, like when cannabis has real medical benefits. So we’re fighting just want people to be aware to be knowledgeable and to kind of reach out to their representatives find out more about what’s happening in their districts. Obviously, in the northeast, we’ve almost got to every state legal New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, we’re doing well. But Bernard is in Louisiana right now. And it’s not good then other southern states, Mississippi, whatever. So that’s where the fight is. And once again, we just joined in sleeves rolled up and we are good to go to, to battle until we can get the change that’s needed.

Benn Marine [25:41]
Awesome. Any advice for black business owners in the cannabis scene?

Fab 5 Freddy [25:45]
Yeah, I mean, listen, like people are coming together. Like during the during the heavy parts of the pandemic, I was on the clubhouse app quite a bit. And literally, it was an amazing to reach to talk to people like the legendary cannabis cultivator entrepreneur. Sherbinskis from out in LA, who’s pioneered next level strains like sherbert. If you guys are real cannabis aware in the audience, you’ll know and these are what we call like legacy guys. The guys that have been down in the game for a long time, that are now transitioning into the legalized business, but have the most incredible cannabis. Burner who’s responsible for the Cookies brand, he’s featured in my film as well talking. So there’s been a great effort of legacy guys to come together to strengthen themselves to get information, we just were blessed to be able to make a partnership with Curaleaf, which happens to be like the biggest what they call MSO, multi state operator. And they realize these wrongs out there, this is why this product is also messages and the tip of an iceberg about how people can now get some information, get a you know, dive in deeper and become a part of this fight in this struggle and this awareness in the key thing is to be aware like, Grass Is Greener, I’ve been a cannabis aficionado for a long time, I didn’t realize some of the things that I found in the film, like how aggressive I mean, even the use of the term marijuana was, was put in place to make cannabis sound more Mexican because it was states that boarded Mexico. Mexicans have been using cannabis and they wanted to give it this name marijuana to make it sound more exotic and to make it easier to focus on those people. And the ended and the demonization of the jazz musicians way back in the 20s and 30s. Like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, all of these people were persecuted and hounded. So it’s just an interesting story. When you get the info you connect these dots and you go, oh, now I see what’s been going on. But we’re we’ve been there’s it’s a it’s it’s it’s an incredible fight. We’ve been winning some battles, but the war to end the war on drugs is still ongoing.

Bernard Noble [28:16]
Yeah. And I would just like to add on to what’s Fab was saying about how far the progress has came, but it’s it has a long way to go. Amazing. Dr. Bernard Noble today he is.

Benn Marine [28:31]
That’s amazing. Any final thoughts that you both want to impart to listeners?

Fab 5 Freddy [28:36]
Ah, be real be understanding this is this is this is a time now to to take a serious and not be so hypocritical, because that’s my mission. I want to get to all like hypocrites, and give them the rub this lotion on them and see, you know, this a long time ago, and it’s just time to know the truth. I want to get the truth out. Don’t be scared of the truth. Let’s be real. And and just keep it more.

Yes. I agree with everything that Bernard said I think people getting the right information is key because we’ve been denied we’ve been lied to they called it, you know the gateway drug? Like if implying if you smoke a joint, you know, you’ll be shooting heroin and all that stuff. All that’s been proven false misinformation on top of that incredible medical benefits to each and every one of us. And it’s a similar fight but a much harder fight than alcohol prohibition was when you think about it, because this aspect of race, which is so unfortunate has been connected to this struggle to this fight and the reason why this plant was criminalized. If you haven’t seen Grass Is Greener and you’d like to have a sense of where this comes from, please watch the film on Netflix and B Noble is available right now Massachusetts, and Maryland and by the fall will be available wherever fine cannabis is legally sold.

Benn Marine [30:07]
After hearing Bernard’s story, it felt critical that we educate and inform our audience on why this issue is so important. Because really what we are talking about here are the tools of systemic racism and oppression. So I reached out to the Last Prisoner Project to help illustrate that point and deliver some context. Here is my conversation with the Executive Director of the Last Prisoner Project, Sarah Gersten, I asked her all about the Last Prisoner project and why their work is so important.

Sarah Gersten [30:36]
The Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. And what that means is that we really have one singular goal, which is to release every last cannabis prisoner from incarceration, and to help them to rebuild their lives.

Benn Marine [30:56]
Can you speak a little bit to the role that race and racism has played in the war on drugs?

Sarah Gersten [31:02]
Yeah so. When you think back to the war on drugs as sort of the campaign that was launched by Nixon in the 1970s, and sort of double down on by Reagan, in the 80s, it’s clear, and even one of Nixon’s advisors has stated, you know, the impetus behind those laws was not to protect public health or public safety. It was really to criminalize black Americans, and the anti war left, but even looking back to two other times in American history where we have criminalized drug use. Starting in the late 19th century, we banned opium really because of anti-Chinese sentiment, and wanting to target Chinese Americans. And then, of course, when you move on to the 1930s, and the marijuana Tax Act, Anslinger, who was the drafter of that law, again, has made it very clear, very obvious from his statements from the legislative history, that that law was designed to target, black and brown Americans to target communities of color. And so when you think about the war on drugs as a public health initiative, or a public safety initiative, or Criminal Justice Initiative, it has been an abject failure, right? It we’ve sunk billions of dollars into enforcing these laws that have had no benefit on public health or public safety. They’ve devastated countless lives, and with no real positive things to show for it. But if you look at the war on drugs, as a tool of racial animus as a tool to criminalize communities of color, then it’s been a huge success. And we certainly see that play out today. With the ramifications of these laws when we look at the disproportionate effect on communities of color. Right now, black Americans are almost four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite equal rates of usage. And when you look forward into the criminal legal system, from arrest to sentencing to getting charged and getting a lengthy sentence of incarceration, those disproportionality are only exacerbated. So about 75% of Americans that are currently incarcerated for drug possession are black Americans. And so again, it’s very clear this is based in fact, that the war on drugs has always been a tool of racial control.

Benn Marine [34:02]
And convictions of cannabis possession impact folks beyond just serving their sentence. Can you speak to the long term effects and some of the challenges that formerly incarcerated people face upon reentry into society?

Sarah Gersten [34:16]
So unfortunately, we really do not provide the resources and the tools that someone needs when they’re coming home from rain from incarceration, we actually set up a lot of barriers to successfully re entering of when you come out of prison, you literally have the clothes on your back, you generally don’t have any money or a very small amount of money. You don’t even have a license. And you have to immediately go find stable housing, go find stable employment or you will be in violation of your parole or your probation. And of course, when you have a criminal record, especially if you have a felony offense, it’s very difficult to secure housing, to get employment, to even get bank loans. And so of course, the system is sort of designed for failure. And that’s why we see incredibly high recidivism rates in this country, nearly two thirds of individuals re entering will be reincarcerated within three years of release. And so that just shows you again, you know, that does not mean that two thirds of people coming out deserve to be reincarcerated, it means that we have set up a system that is designed to fail those that have been impacted by our criminal legal system.

Benn Marine [35:43]
And to that end, I mean, incarceration impacts more than just the folks are being incarcerated. Can you share with listeners, how communities at large are impacted?

Sarah Gersten [35:53]
Yeah, andI see this day in and day out in my work, unfortunately, my work does not really end with my client, I get very connected with the families of the individuals who are suffering from being incarcerated. And it of course, impacts those families, and particularly the children of those that are incarcerated, of course, that comes with so much trauma and just dealing with losing a parent losing a primary earner in the household. And unfortunately, we see that the impacts of our criminal legal system are really intergenerational. If you have an incarcerated parent, you are much more likely yourself to be impacted by our criminal legal system. And so of course, you can see how one not even you know, one person being incarcerated one arrest record, can spiral and affect not just entire families, but entire communities.

Benn Marine [36:57]
It’s It’s interesting. Speaking of that, we actually spoke with Bernard noble who served seven years of a 13 year sentence for cannabis possession. And, you know, upon learning that I was flabbergasted, like oh, my goodness, and I think it was really equivalent of two joints worth of possession. But then I was on your site. And I saw that there were folks that have received life sentences for possession. I mean, how that blew my mind, how common are these long sentences for possession of cannabis.

Sarah Gersten [37:28]
So Bernard Noble was a case in the state of Louisiana. And unfortunately, Louisiana, like a lot of southern states has some of the harshest drug laws still on the books. And things like Louisiana’s habitual offender law, which is the state equivalent of our federal three strikes law, are typically the reasons that you see these really egregious sentences and sometimes even life sentences for even just simple possession. And so in that case, I believe it was three instances of drug possession. But because it had happened those three or four times, he then was flagged as a habitual offender under Louisiana law, and got that, you know, over a decade sentence for marijuana possession. And we’ve certainly seen that, unfortunately, in Louisiana, where we’ve had two clients who have gotten life sentences. Luckily, they both since been released, but for just possession of marijuana because of that habitual offender law. And things like mandatory minimum work the same way to really exacerbate these sentences. And so in those instances, you could have someone who’s a first time nonviolent marijuana offender who gets a life sentence that happened to one of our constituents, Craig Cecil, he now works with us and our reentry team helps folks that are coming home. But he was first time nonviolent offender and his offense was that he was repairing trucks for long haul truckers that were shipping marijuana. And he got wrapped up in a conspiracy charge and hit with a king pin enhancement despite having a very low level role. And so the mandatory minimums tied to that left him with a life sentence. Luckily, his sentence was commuted. Again, he’s now working with us and helping others in that situation. But you can see the ways in which the system is completely broken, in that you have people who their only crime is that they’ve used an illegal substance and they’re getting hit with more egregious longer sentences, then violent offenders.

Benn Marine [39:51]
Can you explain for listeners what mandatory minimums are and what the three what the federal three strikes law is for folks that maybe you aren’t familiar.

Sarah Gersten [40:01]
Yeah. And so the Federal Three Strikes Law is that if you have three felony offenses, and that can be either at the state or federal level, you get hit with a sentencing enhancement. And so you’ll get a longer sentence if you have three felonies on your record. And I mentioned that state federal dichotomy because it’s actually a very tragic part of what we see very often. One example is one of our constituents, again, luckily, now release now with us as LPP as a fellow, but Corvin Cooper, he had two prior state marijuana felony charges, and then got a third Federal offense. And so about a life sentence, those two prior state felony charges during his sentence, he was incarcerated in 2013. In that time, of course, California completely legalized and downgraded those offenses. So those felony offenses became misdemeanors under state law. But that didn’t change his life sentence, despite the change in law in California, because he was serving a federal sentence. So that’s just further injustice of the Federal three strikes law and how that can really work to give someone a life sentence, who is completely undeserving. Mandatory minimums are a basically requirement that takes discretion away from judges. So when judges are sentencing people, if they have a certain charge that they’ve pled guilty to, or that they’ve been found guilty on, the judge has no ability to give them a lesser sentence. So the judge might see in the cake case of you know, someone like Craig Cecil, this first time nonviolent offender doesn’t really have an active role in this conspiracy. But he because of the charge that Craig got, has no discretion and has is forced to give him a life sentence. And we have definitely seen also, things like mandatory minimums and three strikes laws and habitual offenders laws disproportionately affect communities of color as well, so that the people that are subject to those kinds of enhancements are by and large, black and brown Americans.

Benn Marine [42:39]
And now we’re seeing in states legalization, recreationally legalization, what does in that context of kind of the cannabis industry and that now, you know, money’s being made legally? Well, prime, you know, for private benefactors, but also through tax revenue for the government. What does restorative justice look like, in that context, like thinking about the fact that there are still so many people incarcerated for this crime that is legal in so much of our country,

Sarah Gersten [43:09]
And I think that really is the height of injustice, that at the same time that individuals, mostly white men, are profiting millions of dollars off of this now legal industry, we still have mostly black and brown Americans incarcerated, sometimes for life sentences. And even the states themselves are bringing in millions or billions of dollars into state coffers, at the same time that people are still sitting in state prisons. And so I think that has been the biggest failure on the part of states that have legalized is that they are not providing enough or any in some cases, retroactive relief, so that by law, we are automatically releasing those that are still in prison for cannabis offenses, but also that we have to automatically clear the records of those that might have a cannabis offense on the records, because, as we talked about, that can impact your life for the rest of your life in myriad ways. And so we’re starting to see more and more states recognize that including restorative justice provisions has to be part and parcel with legalization. But I really don’t think any state has gone far enough to truly repair the damages that are so widespread of the war on drugs and of the criminalization of cannabis.

Benn Marine [44:41]
For states that have legalized and don’t have any of those provisions, what are some of the policies that you would if you could impart on people to advocate for and try to get passed at the state level? What would some of those policies look like and how can we advance those forward?

Sarah Gersten [44:59]
So, the first one automatic expungement. And so expungement is not just the clearing of someone’s record, but actually destroying the record so that it can no longer affect someone’s ability to get a job, someone’s ability to find housing, all the ways in which a criminal record can be a hindrance in someone’s life. But the key is that it is automatic. So what we’ve seen, and what we saw in a lot of the earlier states that legalized was that they had a petition based process. So in the state that I was coming from Massachusetts, one of the first days to legalize, they made it a very simplified petition form for someone to fill out to get an expungement for a marijuana offense. But unfortunately, we see a incredibly low amount of eligible individuals actually take advantage of those kinds of petitions, you might need to hire a lawyer, which of course costs money, you have to access your criminal records, which costs money, you have to know that you’re eligible for these laws, you have to know that these laws exist, you have to know how to navigate this process and understand some of the legal ease that are built into these forms. And of course, if English is not your first language, that’s going to be even more difficult. So we really need to ensure that the burden is on the state to automatically identify people that are deserving of this kind of relief, and then do the work of clearing and destroying those records. So that’s the first thing. The second thing would be really broad resentencing, again, for anyone that is in prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense. And that piece is a little trickier. And we’ve seen very few states try to do this, and the ones that have have been for a very limited class of individuals. And that’s because again, the system is really designed to keep people in prison and put them in prison for a very long time. So it’s very rare that we see people incarcerated for simple possession, they have other offenses. Usually, if someone is gets a charge for selling, distributing or manufacturing marijuana, you’ll also get hit with a money laundering charge or other financial crimes or a fraud charge. And so it’s not enough to just say, we can only find the nonviolent marijuana offenders which that word in and of itself and non violent is not a true dichotomy in the criminal legal system. And so we’re excluding a lot of really deserving people, when we narrowly tailor those laws to only affect people that might have a simple marijuana possession charge.

Benn Marine [47:49]
What about the state of New York? I think when they and I’ll own I don’t fully understand the intricacies of this. But when they pass legalization, they have some have something that so much of sales has to go back into communities impacted or something to that effect. Is that enough? Is that or is there should that be strengthened is that I’d be curious your thoughts on that policy.

Sarah Gersten [48:16]
So I think that’s one piece of it, right? Of course, community reinvestment, because as we talked about when someone gets arrested or is sent to prison for a marijuana offense, it impacts entire communities. And so rebuilding the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by these laws is crucial and setting up opportunities for those communities to access the now legal industry is equally crucial. So that has to be a part of legalization, along with the criminal justice provisions. And I think what’s interesting is that so often we see those community reinvestment funds, go back to things like you know, public safety, education, you know, impaired driving education, funding for schools, which are all great and important things. But when we talk about reinvesting those funds to the people that have been most impacted by these laws, it should be going towards helping disproportionately impacted communities get into the industry, ensuring that they have access to the right legal resources to get their records expunged, to be released from prison. I think those things have to take priority and that’s what the funding should be devoted to at this stage.

Benn Marine [49:38]
That makes a lot of sense. What moral obligation does the legal cannabis industry have to supporting the communities that the war on drugs have impacted?

Sarah Gersten [49:47]
I think the legal cannabis industry has a huge moral imperative to give back. I think, if anyone is profiting off of the now legal cannabis industry, you should be doing all that you can to right the wrongs of prohibition, and to solve a lot of the issues that we’ve talked about, I think if we took the collective funding and the collective brainpower of the leaders of this cannabis industry and every operator and the now legal cannabis industry, we could solve for a lot of these issues. But I think the problem is that we’re relying on, you know, governments that are overburdened, underresourced. And so we really have to rely on this private industry to give back and ensure that we’re working towards these solutions. And sorry, if you can hear my dogs just barreled down the stairs, and now they’re attacking each other.

Benn Marine [50:48]
No worries, what are a few ways that folks can get involved and support us support the Last Prisoner Project and all the work that you’re doing.

Sarah Gersten [50:58]
So we make it really easy, we have a page on our website, if you go to lastprisonerproject.org/takeaction. And there you can find all kinds of campaigns that you can currently support. So we’ve got a Federal Campaign calling on the Biden administration to grant categorical clemency for anyone federally incarcerated for marijuana offenses. We’ve got various state level campaigns, and so you can sign on to support petitions, you can contact your lawmakers. And one of the best ways I think that the public can get engaged and really make an impact on this issue is that we have a letter writing program, and we’ve got about 100 constituents across the country that want to hear from you want to know that people are fighting for them want to know that they’re not forgotten. And getting those letters I know is the best part of a lot of my clients day. Getting mail call and getting so many letters from LPP supporters is hugely beneficial for their mental health and wellness. And we really need to do all we can to support those most impacted so if you’re up for it, head to our website, we’ve got a letter writing guide and a directory, you can learn more about our constituents and make a new friend and make a difference in someone’s life.

Benn Marine [52:28]
Time to level up through action and impact. This segment is meant to provide you with ways you can get involved in a local and global level. With one challenge mentioned in the episode. You can do all of what follows or choose your own adventure. If it feels overwhelming. I’m encouraging you to listen for one action in the following listed actions to give a try. If we all make even the smallest of changes, you would be amazed at how it can ripple out.

Be informed. Learn about the business practices of your favorite brands. As a business owner, look into your supply chain and don’t purchase any products that come from prison labor. Keep an eye out for legislation in your area and support automatic expungement of records. As an employer create opportunities for folks that were formerly incarcerated by implementing open hiring at your business, or reducing barriers to employment. Check out our conversation with Greyston Bakery to learn more about open hiring. If you’re participating in the legal cannabis industry, support black owned businesses, get in touch with your local nonprofit working to support the formerly incarcerated. For more ways to get involved, check out the show notes at responsiblydifferent.com.

Next time on Responsibly Different I sit down with Patagonia’s East Coast environmental coordinator, Rebecca Goodstein.

Rebecca Goodstein [53:57]
values are a really hard thing to quantify. And being a B Corp makes sure that every year we take a minute to just look at ourselves, keep ourselves accountable, not only to the folks that work at Patagonia, but also to our customers and our community members and our nonprofit partners to make sure what we’re saying that we’re doing, we’re actually doing so it’s a it’s a good opportunity to just check in and say these are the these are our core values. Are we are we holding true to that? And how can we quantify that and that’s where B Corp is amazingly helpful and the way they they help us look at that and actually translate

Benn Marine [54:36]
it into numbers. Till next time. Be responsibly different. This is a production of Dirigo Collective Claire Closson is our Project Manager. Jeremy Glass is our Writer. The music is an original score by our very own Kevin Oates, and I, Benn marine. I’m your host and editor. To learn more about Dirigo Collective visit dirigocollective.com