Upon his release from prison after serving 13 years of a mandatory 55-year prison sentence for selling $900 worth of cannabis in a sting operation, Weldon Angelos, once an aspiring musician, has dedicated his life to ending cannabis prohibition and mass incarceration through The Weldon Project.
Angelos, who was once an upcoming music producer and recording artist working with Snoop Dogg, Tupac and others, sold $300 worth of cannabis to a confidential informant on three occasions, a low-level crime that prosecutors used to charge Angelos with 20 different federal crimes. In 2004, when he was just 25 years old, he was convicted of 16 of the 20 counts and was sentenced to 55 years in prison without the possibility of early release.
In addition to 13 drug, firearm and money laundering charges, Angelos was convicted of three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. He received a five-year mandatory minimum for the first charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; a consecutive 25-year sentence for the second; and another consecutive 25-year sentence for the third.
“My judge felt that a 6 1/2-year sentence, 6 1/2 to eight years, would fully punish me for all the conduct that I engaged in,” Angelos told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary in a June 25 interview. “But my mandatory minimum was 55 years, and he had no choice.”
Paul Cassell, the federal judge who issued the mandatory sentence, spoke out against it and ultimately resigned from his lifetime appointment to the federal bench in Utah to advocate for Angelos’ release. In February 2016, Cassell wrote directly to President Barack Obama to support Angelos’ clemency petition, calling his sentence “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench,” according to the Washington Post.
Angelos eventually became a symbol for justice reform, and in May 2016, following a bipartisan campaign by government officials, celebrities, business leaders and media outlets, he was released from prison. Former President Donald Trump fully pardoned Angelos in December 2020.
“I was separated from my sons,” Angelos said. “They were 5 and 6, I believe, when I left, and I got out and my sons were grown men. They had facial hair and they were bigger than me. And it was an adjustment.”
Now, The Weldon Project works to fund social change and financial aid for those who are still serving prison time for cannabis-related offenses. With the help of partnerships in the legal cannabis industry, the organization has launched the Mission [Green] initiative to provide ways for cannabis businesses and consumers to participate in a nationwide campaign to offer relief to those who have been negatively impacted by prohibition.
“Project Mission [Green]’s sole purpose is to end incarceration for cannabis,” Angelos said. “And our secondary mission statement is we're in this to put ourselves out of business because we don't want there to be a need for us. And so, Mission [Green] is an initiative of The Weldon Project and it's dedicated solely to ending incarceration for cannabis.”
The organization has worked with the past three presidential administrations to commute sentences in the federal justice system. Angelos estimated that there are roughly 3,200 people still serving lengthy sentences due to cannabis-related convictions, despite the fact that the federal government is no longer actively prosecuting these types of cases.
“There's been a shift since 2014 in the Cole Memo and in the appropriations bill that the U.S. attorneys’ offices around the country have been refusing to pick up marijuana cases unless they're a really big case that goes across state lines,” he said. “But, even then, they sometimes don't pick them up anymore. … And so, the hypocrisy is really what gets to me because the federal government is allowing these corporations … to violate federal statute. … They're allowing them to continue to do it, to make money and collect taxes, but simultaneously keeping these same individuals in prison, most of whom would not be charged today because of changes to state and federal law and policy. And so, it's just completely hypocritical to leave them in there. And we're confident and hopeful that Joe [Biden] will clean up the mess he helped create.”
In 1986, then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden co-crafted and co-sponsored the bipartisan Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which authorized new funding for drug treatment programs and stricter penalties for drug offenses.
A Voice for Change
Earlier this month, Angelos submitted a letter to Biden’s administration to urge the president “to grant a full, complete, and unconditional pardon to all persons subject to federal criminal or civil enforcement on the basis of non-violent marijuana offenses.”
“As you know, the federal ‘war on drugs’ has crushed many souls and countless futures, while spreading intolerable levels of mistrust and dysfunction between minority communities and those sworn to protect them,” the letter reads. “Although the war impacts individuals of all races, the effects of drug prohibition—from surveillance and arrest, to trial and conviction, to incarceration and reentry into society—are felt most keenly by the poor, the powerless, and people of color. Reckoning with these harms is a critical civil rights issue, which must proceed with what Dr. King memorably described as the ‘fierce urgency of now.’”
Over 150 artists, athletes, producers, lawmakers, policy experts, reform advocates and leaders in business, law enforcement and academia have signed the letter, including Kellen O’Keefe, president and CEO of Nevada-based cannabis producer Flower One.
“I think [Weldon’s] case is such a fascinating one because of the severity, the amount of time [in his sentence] and the amount of time he ultimately spent in prison as a result of selling such a very, very small amount of cannabis due to mandatory sentencing minimums,” O’Keefe said. “I think it’s very noble of him. Many people just get out and just try to move on with their lives. I think he’s done a really commendable thing in trying to make sure that the other people like him are helped, as well.”
O’Keefe said his decision to sign the letter is “about making some noise and generating some buzz and some publicity” around mass incarceration for cannabis offenses, as well as the fact that cannabis laws have historically targeted minorities and people of color disproportionately, while legal cannabis markets thrive.
“We need to ensure—and I think many want to make sure—that the industry and the laws that are changed do not forget about the people that are still incarcerated and paying dearly for former drug laws,” O’Keefe said.
Flower One has tried to be involved with as many criminal justice programs as possible, O’Keefe added. The company has supported the Last Prisoner Project in the past and has tried to partner with diverse brands that support social equity, such as Cookies, Viola and Deuces 22.
In addition, as part of its partnership with The Weldon Project, Flower One will soon carry the organization’s REEForm product line, with a portion of the proceeds going to the causes and groups that Angelos supports.
“As far as a business and an operation and our culture, diversity is a huge part of who we are,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve worked very hard to make sure that we have a very diverse organization, ranging from our board of directors all the way down to management and throughout our team. We continue to try to create opportunities for those that have been incarcerated. We have also tried to make sure that we pay close attention to diversity through the hiring process and try to create opportunities wherever we can.”
O’Keefe is in the process of joining the board for the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), a collective of industry leaders who lobby at the federal level for cannabis policy reform and legalization.
“I think one of the things that’s very important to us at Flower One is that we are cannabis advocates first and foremost,” O’Keefe said. “We very much believe in legalization. … From our standpoint, we see the legalization of cannabis and the acceptance of cannabis on a mainstream level to be a huge positive for the industry, and as advocates first and foremost, these far more important issues, such as mass incarceration and social justice, are more important than market share concerns or supply chain concerns that the industry has. So, for us, it’s very important to us that we fight for and represent advocacy and cannabis advocacy first and foremost above business interests.”
Along those lines, Angelos and his team recently launched the Cannabis Freedom Alliance to work on federal legalization efforts.
“It’s just so unjust that we have individuals and corporations making millions of dollars while simultaneously keeping people incarcerated for violating the same federal statute that these corporations are violating every day,” Angelos said.
Angelos and his organization are advocating for clemency for dozens of people serving life sentences for cannabis-related crimes. The group submitted a list of 25 cases for clemency to the Trump administration, and the former president pardoned 12 people who were serving life sentences in those cases on the final day of his term.
Since Trump left office, Angelos said his organization has continued working on the 13 cases that went unpardoned, among others, and successfully helped with the compassionate release of Eric McCauley earlier this year. In 2012, McCauley was sentenced to 23 years in prison for cannabis and money-laundering felonies.
For the final question during the April 20, 2021, White House press conference, reporter Scott Bixby of The Daily Beast asked whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki took the opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal cannabis, decriminalizing adult use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records but said she couldn’t “get ahead” of any specific cases.
Angelos said his organization is in contact with the White House counsel and is hopeful that the Biden administration will create and launch a clemency project that will deal with the cannabis cases still in the federal system.
“We’re watching state after state legalize, and we were getting denied clemency,” Angelos said about his time behind bars alongside other cannabis convicts. “And now we see these people making millions and we're just sitting in here with effective life sentences. And it was crazy, which is what really motivated me when I got out, because I had a lot of people pulling for me. Most people in prison don't have that. They don't have, you know, a dedicated sister that's articulate and they can go out there and fight for me. They didn't have famous rappers and movie stars and politicians pushing for them. So, when I got out, I knew I needed to be that voice for those people."