Owner Steve DeAngelo at the Harborside marijuana dispensary in January 2018 in Oakland, Calif. | Mathew Sumner/AP Photo
The Last Prisoner Project brings fund-raising heft to a long-starved cause, but its fellow advocates say it isn’t necessarily a team player.
With a founder who is one of the pot world’s most legendary activists and a board that includes Jim Belushi, Melissa Etheridge and two sons of Bob Marley, the Last Prisoner Project attracted fans from the moment it sprang on the West Coast charity scene in the spring of 2019, calling on cannabis enthusiasts to help secure the release of people convicted of marijuana-related crimes.
Now it’s getting attention for a different reason: pushback from would-be allies who’ve toiled for decades on the same cause.
The star-studded group known as LPP has amassed major financial commitments from cannabis companies by arguing that an industry dominated by white businesspeople is flourishing while tens of thousands of disproportionately Black and brown people remain in prison for marijuana-related crimes. That made it one of the richest sources of funding for a cause that has consumed pot activists for decades: bringing justice to those imprisoned for trading in what is now a legal product in 15 states.
But there are rampant questions about whether that money is being put to its best use. Interviews with more than a dozen cannabis industry insiders and social justice advocates revealed widespread anger toward LPP. Many claimed that the organization failed to follow through on commitments to support preexisting groups while doing relatively little on its own to reduce the level of incarceration. They described an organization that is good at promoting itself, collecting celebrity endorsements and raising money from the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry, but less willing to put in the hard work required to help get people out of prison.
“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, the former California director of the Drug Policy Alliance and co-founder of the nonprofit Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership. Lyman was in talks to partner with LPP last year on a program to help former prisoners reenter society but said that LPP backed out after she put in months of work developing the program.
“What we are missing is funding,” Lyman said. “We don’t need you to come in here and reinvent the wheel. They refused to hear that message.”
By the standards of social justice groups, LPP has indeed been showered with contributions. It received pledges of at least $500,000 this year from cannabis companies with operations in several states, including such major industry players as AWH and Green Thumb Industries. And that’s not counting an additional trove of funds that were tied to a percentage of sales or revenues, or in-kind donations. The half-million alone is already more than double what LPP raised in 2019.
Published: December 31, 2020
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News