Weldon Angelos got the call from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) on Tuesday and broke down in joy. He had just received a presidential pardon for a federal marijuana conviction that cost him over a decade in prison.
Since having his sentence reduced and being released from a mandatory minimum sentence in 2016, Angelos has committed himself to advocating for criminal justice reform. He’d served 13 years, and he knows intimately the inequities of the system. Now, a GOP senator told him on the other end of the phone, that his conviction—and the lingering consequences it has on his life—are null and void.
— Weldon Angelos (@weldon_angelos) December 24, 2020
It was one of the more overlooked pardons this week, as President Trump also granted clemency to a slew of allies and controversial figures such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, former Republican members of Congress and the team of four private military contractors convicted of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre. But to civil rights advocates, the Angelos pardon represented a step toward justice.
In an interview, Angelos talked to Marijuana Moment about what the clemency means to him, as well as his ongoing advocacy for other victims of the war on drugs who remain incarcerated over non-violent drug offenses. He says he’s hoping Trump will continue to grant relief to these individuals—many of whom he’s personally urged the White House to consider—as the administration enters its final days.
Congratulations, Weldon! God bless, and merry Christmas. https://t.co/h7jlaGvThO
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) December 23, 2020
Trump has pardoned or commuted the sentences of several other people convicted of cannabis and other drug charges in recent days. That builds on prior acts of clemency for people like Alice Johnson, who later appeared at the Republican National Convention and whose story was featured in Trump campaign ads in the run-up to the election.
The White House description of Angelos’s pardon says he “is an active criminal justice reform advocate and champion of giving second chances,” and his conviction was the product of “excessive” mandatory minimum sentencing.
“His story has been cited as an inspiration for sentencing reform, including the First Step Act, and he participated in a Prison Reform Summit at the White House in 2018,” it continues. “In his own words, Mr. Angelos wants ‘to become whole again and put the bad choices in the past and continue changing the world for the better.'”
Read Marijuana Moment’s post-pardon interview with Angelos below. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: I want to start by just hearing how it felt when you got the news of the pardon. What was going through your mind?
Weldon Angelos: It’s the second best thing that’s happened to me in my life—the first being relief from a 55-year sentence. This is the next best thing that could possibly happen. I got a call from Mike Lee at 2:00 PM, and I broke down. Really emotional in the initial stages. I was hopeful that it would happen, but it’s really difficult.
Pardons are really tough to get, and they don’t happen often. And especially with someone like myself, who’s typically not an ideal candidate, just because of the way the government painted me as this armed drug gang-banging kingpin who was like the biggest threat to society and the biggest drug dealer in the state and, you know, a no-good thug. If I would have filed for a pardon under the pardon office, I would have got summarily denied, probably out the gate. They have a lot of requirements, you have to be out five years and they typically don’t recommend pardons for people unless they’ve been out like 20 years and have done something extraordinary.
I’m hoping that the next administration starts making pardons and commutations so regular they don’t generate headlines. That’s really what I want to see happen. I’m hopeful that this will continue. I think the the pardon office in the Department of Justice just have such an inherent conflict of interest that they shouldn’t be involved in the process, other than if they want to get their views on a case. That’s fine, but I don’t think they should have a say in it. I think it needs to be an independent board. And so even though Trump didn’t do that, this informal committee is a step in the right direction, and I hope the next administration picks up on it and maybe improves upon it even more.
MM: Can you talk to me about what you’ve been doing behind-the-scenes to advocate for people in similar situations as you found yourself in? How did you foster a relationship with the White House?
WA: When I first got out, Obama was in office, and when Trump was elected, I went on MSNBC with Mark Holden [of Koch Industries] to counter the stuff [Trump] was saying on the campaign trail. And we thought that criminal justice reform was over for four years and we’d have to start over that with the next president. So when I got invited to the White House in May of 2018, I was shocked.
I went into the White House as someone who just got out of prison, just got off federal probation, and heard President Trump literally speak in favor of criminal justice reform. And it was shocking to say the least. It all started there. When I got to the prison reform summit, I’d seen somebody who worked there that I knew that worked on my case—he worked with the Koch Network. And I developed a relationship with folks in the White House, different individuals in there.
I became sort of like—I’m not really like an advisor, but someone who recommended cases and certain actions, sort of like an informal advisor role. I was able to bring cases to their attention. And I’ve done that for a number of cases. I was happy to work with the president and his team, and I’d be happy to work with the next one. But that’s how it all started. We started with a prison reform summit. And we started working on the First Step Act.
After that summit, the next goal was getting this First Step Act done. And Mike Lee was helping. He was one of the key senators that was working to get this done, and my story was that I was the poster child for the First Step Act on the sentencing reform side. There was a lot of support in the Senate of my case and wanting to reform it. It was because my judge critiqued my sentence so forcefully—and he was a Federalist Society judge—and so that’s sort of why the conservatives were willing to listen to my judge’s views. The First Step Act was what allowed me to work with this administration, and we just continued that relationship all the way until now.
MM: What do you hope to see in the next couple weeks before the end of the Trump administration?
WA: I hope President Trump breaks Obama’s record because there should not be any federal cannabis prisoners left when Trump is out. That’s my hope. But will that happen with such little time? Probably not. But I’m hopeful that he will correct the most egregious offenses out there, like Luke Scarmazzo, like Corvain Cooper, like Michael Pelletier— people who should not be in prison.
MM: Your clemency petition was backed by GOP members of Congress like Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY). How important do you think it was to have support from those lawmakers?
WA: I think it was very important just because a lot of times presidents never get to hear about a case that gets granted. It just comes to their desk after it’s gone through the process of going through the pardon attorney, going to the deputy attorney general, then the White House counsel. Then the president gets it once it’s made its way through that process. And so the only way around that is having somebody that the president trusts, bringing it to him and saying, ‘Hey, this is a very important case. Please consider it.’ And so Mike Lee, you know, was able to do that.
A lot of people supported me—Alice Johnson—but Mike Lee was my biggest supporter. I think this was important to Mike Lee, because, you know, I’ve done so much good when I got out of jail and I’ve been working to help other people over my own self. I could have got out and tried to get back in music and focus on my career, but I’ve been working just to get other people out. And I think Mike Lee wanted the president to know all I’ve done and that I could do so much more as a full citizen. I’m no longer a second class citizen, and I think he relayed that to the president. I think that was compelling for him.
MM: What are the practical benefits of receiving a presidential pardon?
WA: Almost everything you do in life, you’ve got to fill out some kind of application, whether you’re filing for a loan, a grant, a job, you’re trying to move into a new apartment or a house. They ask you if you have a felony conviction. And usually, that fact alone prevents you from getting to the next step. In a job, you check the box. You don’t get a callback when you check the box. Even if they accept people with convictions, they’ll usually put it to the bottom of the pile. And there are certain loans I couldn’t get. Certain neighborhoods you can’t move in. If I wanted to get an apartment in a nice neighborhood and I told him I had a felony, I would be precluded from going to that neighborhood. And so when you have these felony convictions, you have to move in with other people, you have to do things around it.
Then secondly, in some states you can’t vote if you’ve got a felony conviction. When you get pulled over by law enforcement, your record shows up. And what shows up makes me look like a really bad guy and I don’t want law enforcement looking to be like, ‘Oh, this is an armed drug dealer, I’ve gotta be careful.’
So there are those benefits. I get all my civil rights back on. I have my 2nd Amendment rights restored. And I’m a whole citizen again. I don’t have to worry about it. It’s almost like an exoneration basically. Everything from that incident is wiped away, it’s gone. It’s like it never happen almost. That’s the next best thing other than getting me my 12 plus years back and missing my dad. He passed away when I was in jail. Losing a career where I had a multi-million dollar contract and those were all wiped away over some weed.
This is the best thing that can happen outside of going back in time.
MM: Trump also pardoned a series of political allies and other controversial figures on Tuesday. I wonder how you square that and whether you feel like these more popular acts of clemency for non-violent drug offenders essentially serve to detract from the controversy and earn him points.
WA: I do think that my grant was sincere. I know Mike Lee and President Trump had a conversation about it before he granted it—and talking about me and everything I’ve done. I don’t really know a lot about the other people who are granted pardons just because I’m not a news junkie. I just focus on reform. And so I haven’t had a chance to check their records.
MM: Are you optimistic that a Biden administration will continue to go down this path of granting clemency for nonviolent drug offenders?
WA: I’m cautiously hopeful because, you know, obviously the Obama administration, they waited until the last two years. And I think the country is more in favor of these types of actions than they were back when Obama was in office. My only fear would be that we go back to the [Office of the Pardon Attorney] and go back to the DOJ being the gatekeeper. And I think if that happens, then we’ll probably see less, not more. But given the climate right now,—and I think there’s a lot of pressure on Biden to do a lot of them—I’m hopeful that he doesn’t wait until a reelection or after he’s reelected, if he’s reelected, to actually start doing it because [Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)], who I’m a big fan of and a good friend of, he wanted to do 17,000 on day one [if elected president].
We’re certainly going to be pushing and we would be happy to work with the Biden administration. But we definitely are going to encourage as many commutations as possible, and I’m going to be working with Senator Mike Lee next year on passing additional reforms because the First Step Act changed a lot, but it didn’t make anything retroactive. We have that work ahead of us. But I am hopeful just because the majority of the country is moving in the right direction and there’s a lot of reforms happening in the states.
I think there’s enough pressure on the Biden administration, or there will be, that we’ll see a continuation.
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.