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.
Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment To Large-Scale House Bill
The House sponsor of a bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses announced on Friday that he is seeking to attach an amendment containing the reform to a broader bill dealing with research and innovation in the tech and manufacturing sectors.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), sponsor of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, has expressed interest in finding another vehicle to pursue his proposal after it was stripped from a separate defense bill late last year. The congressman’s legislation has cleared the House in five forms at this point, only to stall in the Senate.
His latest attempt to get the reform enacted is by filing an amendment with the SAFE Banking language to the America COMPETES Act, which does not deal specifically with cannabis issues as drafted but was introduced in the House this week.
“Cannabis-related businesses—big and small—and their employees are in desperate need of access to the banking system and access to capital in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner and compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace,” Perlmutter, who is retiring from Congress after this session and committed to passing his bill first, said in a press release.
I have filed #SAFEBanking as an amendment to #AmericaCOMPETES b/c cannabis-related businesses – big and small – are in desperate need of access to capital & the banking system in order to operate in an efficient, safe manner & compete in the growing global cannabis marketplace.
— Rep. Ed Perlmutter (@RepPerlmutter) January 28, 2022
“The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business,” he said. “I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law.”
It remains to be seen whether the America COMPETES Act will serve as a more effective vehicle for the cannabis banking bill than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the language was successfully attached on the House side but later removed amid bicameral negotiations. Perlmutter said at the time that Senate leadership, which is working on comprehensive legalization legislation, was to blame for the decision to remove his amendment from the proposal.
The new SAFE Banking Act amendment will still need to be made in order by the House Rules Committee in order to be formally be considered on the House floor when the body takes up the research and innovation package. The deadline to file amendments was Friday, and the panel is set to take them up starting on Tuesday.
Even some Republicans are scratching their heads about how Democrats have so far failed to pass the modest banking reform with majorities in both chambers and control of the White House. For example, Rep. Rand Paul (R-KY) criticized his Democratic colleagues over the issue last month.
In the interim, federal financial regulator Rodney Hood—a board member and former chairman of the federal National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)—recently said that marijuana legalization is not a question of “if” but “when,” and he’s again offering advice on how to navigate the federal-state conflict that has left many banks reluctant to work with cannabis businesses.
Ohio Lawmakers Will Be Forced To Consider Marijuana Legalization As State Validates Activist Signatures
Ohio activists have collected enough signatures to force the legislature to take up the issue of marijuana legalization, the secretary of state’s office confirmed on Friday.
This comes about two weeks after the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) submitted a final round of signatures for the measure. The petitions’ formal validation triggers the legislative review of legalization, but it does not require lawmakers to enact the reform.
The legislature now has four months to consider the campaign’s cannabis reform proposal. Lawmakers can adopt the measure, reject it or pass an amended version. If they do not pass the measure, organizers can then collect an additional 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the ballot in November.
CTRMLA previously submitted petitions for the initiative but the state said they were short some 13,000 signatures, requiring activists to go back and make up the difference.
“We are ready and eager to work with Ohio legislators over the next four months to legalize the adult use of marijuana in Ohio,” CTRMLA spokesman Tom Haren said in a press release. “We are also fully prepared to collect additional signatures and take this issue directly to voters on November 8, 2022, if legislators fail to act.”
The measure that lawmakers will be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
A 10 percent sales tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, with revenue being divided up to support social equity and jobs programs (36 percent), localities that allow adult-use marijuana enterprises to operate in their area (36 percent), education and substance misuse programs (25 percent) and administrative costs of implementing the system (three percent).
A Division of Cannabis Control would be established under the state Department of Commerce. It would have authority to “license, regulate, investigate, and penalize adult use cannabis operators, adult use testing laboratories, and individuals required to be licensed.”
The measure gives current medical cannabis businesses a head start in the recreational market. Regulators would need to begin issuing adult-use licenses to qualified applicants who operate existing medical operations within nine months of enactment.
The division would also be required to issue 40 recreational cultivator licenses and 50 adult-use retailer licenses “with a preference to applications who are participants under the cannabis social equity and jobs program.” And it would authorize regulators to issue additional licenses for the recreational market two years after the first operator is approved.
Individual municipalities would be able to opt out of allowing new recreational cannabis companies from opening in their area, but they could not block existing medical marijuana firms even if they want to add co-located adult-use operations. Employers could also maintain policies prohibiting workers from consuming cannabis for adult use.
Further, regulators would be required to “enter into an agreement with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services” to provide “cannabis addiction services,” which would involve “education and treatment for individuals with addiction issues related to cannabis or other controlled substances including opioids.”
With respect to social equity, some advocate are concerned about the lack of specific language on automatic expungements to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses that would be made legal under the legislation. That said, it does include a provision requiring regulators to “study and fund” criminal justice reform initiatives including expungements.
Ohio voters rejected a 2015 legalization initiative that faced criticism from many reform advocates because of an oligopolistic model that would’ve granted exclusive control over cannabis production to the very funders who paid to put the measure on the ballot.
Activists suspended a campaign to place another measure on the 2020 ballot due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from the new voter initiative, state lawmakers from both parties are separately working to advance marijuana reform.
A legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature last year would legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D).
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers similarly filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state in December. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure.
There are also additional local reform efforts underway in Ohio for 2022.
After voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last November’s election—which builds on a slew of previous local reforms in the state—campaigns are now looking to enact decriminalization in Marietta, Rushville, Rutland, Shawnee, McArthur and Laurelville.
Ohio marijuana activists already successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials. That measure is now expected to go before voters this November.
Top Federal Drug Official Says Marijuana Use ‘Stable’ Among Youth At Prohibitionist-Hosted Panel Sponsored By D.A.R.E.
A top federal drug official participated in a panel hosted by a prohibitionist group and sponsored by D.A.R.E.—and she again reiterated that data shows youth marijuana use has remained stable “despite the legalization in many states.”
While National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow expressed concerns about certain cannabis trends related to potency, commercialization and use by pregnant women, she affirmed that surveys funded by her own federal agency have demonstrated that adolescent marijuana use is “stable,” despite repeated arguments from prohibitionists that legalization would lead more young people to experiment with cannabis.
The event was hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-legalization group. SAM President Kevin Sabet and the organization’s co-founder former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) led the discussion.
“The higher the content of THC, the greater the likelihood that you will become addicted to the drug… The content of THC has gone up at least 4-fold.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
Sabet said that data on youth use has showed varying results in states that have legalized cannabis and asked Volkow to weigh in on the issue. She replied that federal data “have not been able to see large differences in terms of prevalence” of cannabis consumption among young people in legal and non-legal states.
The official made similar comments in an interview with Marijuana Moment late last year.
That said, Volkow said that they have seen some differences when it comes to consumption rates among adolescents for edible cannabis products.
“But the effects are not large, and one of the things that also certainly surprised me [is] the rate overall, the prevalence rates of marijuana use among teenagers, have been stable despite the legalization in many states,” she said, adding that there are some concerns about increased frequency of use and limitations in data collection with respect to dosages being taken.
Volkow also commented on a recent federally funded survey that found illicit drug use by young people has taken a significant plunge in the last year, though she largely attributed that to the reduced social interaction resulting from COVID-19 policies across the country.
“Interestingly what we’ve observed during the COVID pandemic is, across schools in the United States, the prevalence of drug use has gone down,” she said, “which likely very much reflects the fact that kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with others, and drug taking at that stage is a peer pressure behavior.”
The official also briefly addressed the fact that she feels criminalizing people over drugs in the first place is the wrong policy approach—a point she’s made repeatedly in interviews and blog posts.
She said that “criminalization has created a system for that allows a structural racism to be implemented, you can control people, and that’s a horrible policy. This criminalization actually opens up our eyes that well, yes, we need to change that.”
However, she said that “liberalizing and making the drugs widely available, with no counter messaging,” is not the alternative she would recommend.
“We need to provide them [addicts] with treatment, so just to say ok we are going to liberalize everything… and not support treatment for those people under those conditions, I actually think it is quite irresponsible.”
– Dr. Nora Volkow, M.D., Director of NIDA
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) January 28, 2022
While the SAM-hosted event did not touch specifically on psychedelics policy, Volkow has also recently discussed that issues, especially as data has shown an increase in use of the substances among adults.
She said people are going to keep using substances such as psilocybin—especially as the reform movement expands and there’s increased attention being drawn to the potential therapeutic benefits—and so researchers and regulators will need to keep up.
Volkow also mentioned that NIDA is “pleased” the Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced plans to significantly increase the quota of certain psychedelic drugs to be produced for use in research.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.