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.