A national organization and a Michigan-based nonprofit are partnering to raise $30,000 in support of people currently or formerly incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes, hoping to bring an element of justice for those jailed for offenses that would now be legal in Michigan.
The Denver-based Last Prisoner Project has teamed up with the Redemption Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Redemption Cannabis brand founded by Ryan Basore, to launch the Michigan Cannabis Prisoner Release Campaign, which seeks to secure the release of nonviolent “cannabis prisoners” in Michigan. That includes Michael Thompson, who remains in prison in Muskegon after a 42- to 62-year sentence in 1994 for selling 3 pounds of marijuana to an undercover informant. The fund aims to provide legal and other financial support to cannabis prisoners.
“The goal is to help out anyone who’s been affected by the war on cannabis and their families,” said Basore, who was released from federal prison in late May 2015. Basore was part of a seven-person medical marijuana caregiver cooperative near Lansing that was raided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The campaign — which also includes the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party and FORCE Detroit and has support from more than two dozen private cannabis businesses and groups — comes amid a rapidly shifting legal landscape for cannabis. Michigan voters approved a cannabis legalization ballot measure in 2018, while four more states — South Dakota, Montana, New Jersey and Arizona — approved recreational cannabis in the Nov. 3 election. Fifteen states have now voted to approve or passed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month signed a bipartisan bill package expanding Michigan’s criminal expungement process, which includes favorable measures for prior cannabis convictions.
The legal and political climate around cannabis in Michigan has seen a sea change since Basore was convicted. Attorney General Dana Nessel has replaced former Attorney General Bill Schuette, for one. A growing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are supporting the industry and criminal justice reform efforts, Basore said.
Advocates also credit the Whitmer administration for making data on cannabis-related incarcerations more readily accessible, which is helping the campaign, said Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel for the Last Prisoner Project.
The Last Prisoner Project formed about a year ago. Its board members and ambassadors include multiple celebrities, including actor Jim Belushi, musician Melissa Etheridge and TV personality Montel Williams.
“Michigan is by far the state where we’ve gotten the most traction in terms of this groundswell of support from organizations, but perhaps most importantly from elected officials like the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Corrections,” Gersten told MiBiz. “It’s clear elected officials in Michigan really want to reform the system.”
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