Honeysuckle joined cannabis activists and industry leaders in rallying outside of the White House on Monday to protest the Biden administration’s failure to live up to its promises about the release of incarcerated citizens. Organized by the policy reform groups Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Last Prisoner Project (LPP), DC Marijuana Justice (DCMJ) and Maryland Marijuana Justice (MDMJ) and supported by leading wellness brand Dr. Bronner’s, the event focused on drawing attention to the thousands of people still imprisoned on cannabis-related convictions.
Protest at the White House: Unifying East Coast Cannabis
Onsite in Washington, D.C., the protestors began early in the morning, with shouts of “Everybody out! Records expunged!” Several hours of demonstrations and speeches ensued, and at one point the attendees shut down a major street while carrying a 51-foot inflatable joint bearing the words “Quit Biden Our Time.” (The joint, created by artist Cesar Maxit, had previously been seen at this year’s New York City Cannabis Parade.)
For Team Honeysuckle, the day was a pivotal moment in history. The event brought together cannabis advocates and professionals from major centers along the East Coast - one of the first unifying political actions seen to join New Yorkers, New Jerseyans, and groups from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia tristate area for the goal of speaking truth to power. Figures at the center of the protest came from all areas of the cannabis community, culture to plant-touching to advocacy. They included hip hop icons M1 and Umi of Dead Prez; cannabis pioneer Steve DeAngelo, founder of the nonprofit JUSTUS Foundation and co-founder of LPP; Leo Bridgewater, Partner at Heart Community Capital; Adam Eidinger, co-founder of DCMJ and Director of Social Action for Dr. Bronner’s; Jason Ortiz, Executive Director of SSDP; legendary cultivator and activist DC Scroger; and Richard DeLisi, known as the nation’s longest-serving nonviolent prisoner after being incarcerated for 32 years on cannabis-related charges. Rapper Redman, co-founder of the United Empowerment Party, arrived on the scene as the protest spread from the White House to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters.
What Did Biden's Cannabis Pardons Actually Do?
The day’s action had been planned before President Joseph Biden’s October 6th announcement that he would be pardoning all people convicted on federal charges of simple cannabis possession. Those organizing the protest, as well as many throughout the cannabis community, were quick to point out that Biden’s pardons have released zero inmates, despite the fact that the President himself said upon making the announcement that “no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana… Anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged.”
“If we can free our brothers and sisters, free ‘em all from behind enemy lines, that’s what I want to do,” M1 commented. In an interview with the New York Post, he added, “I 100% know this was for the midterms… [Biden’s drug legislation in the 1980s and 90s] made warehousing and the prison-industrial complex a viable thing. If you don’t connect the three-strikes-you’re-out law and the other legislation that he had done in the past with what’s happening today, then you won’t see the full hypocrisy.”
Currently, there are no people serving time in federal prisons solely for simple cannabis possession - but thousands of citizens are incarcerated on cannabis-related charges at the state level, which Biden’s pardon does not impact. His executive order also has no effect on the numerous people imprisoned on a combination of cannabis convictions and other charges, in both state and federal institutions. The President’s call urging governors and local authorities to follow his lead in pardoning simple possession also carries very little weight with cannabis advocates, who see state and city authorities as generally indifferent or resistant if their jurisdictions haven’t already passed legalization.
“I think the whole country is waking up to the fact that these pardons didn’t actually release people from prison,” Eidinger shared with the crowd, “and we have yet to get any response from the White House. None… Why is anyone sitting in jail if [cannabis is] legal, if corporations are selling it? Why is it moral to keep a single person behind bars for cannabis? That’s what the White House has to answer now.”
Prison Reform Takes Center Stage at White House Cannabis Protest
Prison reform has always been an issue central to Honeysuckle’s coverage, and the D.C. protest brought into stunning light the culmination of many themes that have recurred again and again throughout our time in the cannabis community and beyond. It was during the production of our BLACK print edition that cannabis entrepreneur Koolrik explained he’d been incarcerated in the 1990s due to Biden’s tough-on-drugs and small-crimes legislation. In subsequent issues and initiatives, Team Honeysuckle would chronicle the formation of LPP, document firsthand accounts of Post Traumatic Prison Disorder, campaign for the (ultimately successful) compassionate release of a California inmate, and film the journey of people in communities directly impacted by the War on Drugs, including several individuals rebuilding their lives in the reentry process.
Honeysuckle founder Ronit Pinto saw the D.C. event as intricately powerful. “Being among the first to witness legalization in New York and the impact of the War on Drugs, we’ve seen all that that’s entailed for the communities,” she noted. “To take it to Washington on a federal level and have so many of the members of the community that we’ve been working with for the past six years hold the President accountable, was significant.”
What resonated most for Pinto was seeing Richard DeLisi, whose story she and Team Honeysuckle have been recording for months (stay tuned for more on that in an upcoming edition), get directly involved in advocating for prisoners. “He said that every day he is alive and doing this kind of work is a good day,” she reported. “Having the prisoners understand that people are out there thinking of them and fighting for them - that’s his mission. The fact that he’s one of the longest-serving inmates in history, participating in this action and with a heightened awareness of the incoming federal legalization, makes this all very impactful and important. And for us, the entire cultural aspect is relevant also. To have the DeLisi family here with Umi and M1 and Redman, who we’ve covered, the community members we worked alongside, ending the night at Legacy DC with so many people from New York - it was full circle for us.”
DC Scroger: A Cannabis Legend's Insights
One of the activists for whom the D.C. protest also felt full circle was DC Scroger, who bonded with DeLisi during the rally. “You’ve got one of the biggest pot prisoners in the world representing, it doesn’t get better than that,” Scroger said. “You got a gem there… He gets back [from prison] and finds his way into the canna game? He’s dope. I respect the shit out of him. But that’s just it - it’s super important that people are making millions and billions of dollars, and we’ve got people sitting in the cell, and the system is making millions and millions off of them, and for what? Nonviolent cannabis charges. Everybody should be gone right now.”
As for the cannabis prisoners facing heavier “kingpin distribution charges,” Scroger continued, “Those are the guys that have logistics like Amazon. You need them in your company, ‘cause you’re going to be able to move whatever you grow.”
Craig Cesal, a protest attendee who is also a former inmate, now serves as the Senior Clemency Case Manager and Advocate at the Equitable Justice Network. Cesal was incarcerated on a life sentence for cannabis charges, but was released last year as one of several inmates pardoned by Donald Trump on his final day in office (another was Corvain Cooper, now brand ambassador for 40 Tons and an advisor to LPP). Through his current role, Cesal says he’s vetted more than 200 people incarcerated on cannabis charges who should be released. Outside the White House, protestors chanted the names of individual prisoners serving time for cannabis, particularly those whose sentences stemmed from policies intensified by Biden’s own 1994 crime law.
According to Scroger, a number of the event’s organizers had planned to get arrested. “Biden said he was pardoning cannabis prisoners, and that was like a false flag, because he wasn’t pardoning anybody,” he said. “So the protest was an act of civil disobedience. The intention was actually to get locked up… Even though we were enticing them to arrest us, they didn’t take the bait.”
Sarah Noon's Arrest
There was only one arrest resulting from the protest. Sarah Noon, a Board member of SSDP’s Chapter Networking Collective and a leader in its Columbia University chapter, saw the White House’s press gate left slightly ajar, and rushed the opening holding her cannabis flag. Scroger described how Noon’s breaching the gate brought the proceedings to a serious turn, as police officers slammed the petite student on the ground. “They shut down Pennsylvania Avenue and told us to go to the park.”
In most civil disobedience actions around D.C., Scroger explained, people who get arrested generally don’t go to jail and instead have to pay a $50 fine. He said that experienced organizers like Eidinger arrange for city permits and protest sponsors ahead of time so that anyone who doesn’t have $50 can get the fine paid for them, and leave without being processed. But Noon entered an area that city permits didn’t cover. “That’s a real charge there,” Scroger added, “and she may have been processed for that.”
Was The Cannabis Protest Effective?
Despite the lack of arrests, Scroger felt the event was overall effective. “The media attention was good. I think the message was concise and clear. Because people out there really do think that [prisoners] are coming home for cannabis… When you explain to somebody that no, nobody came home, there’s nobody in federal prison for possession, they go, ‘Well, who got pardoned?’ Nobody who’s in prison. But the victims’ families got to put their loved ones in front of a national audience, and we did go national [with this].”
During the rally, Steve DeAngelo told a story of an inmate he knew who stayed up all night after hearing about Biden’s pardons, certain that he would be set free immediately, but it never happened. Reflecting on the event afterward, DeAngelo believed it sent a pointed message to the government.
“The 10/24 action was historic—the first cannabis demonstration targeting Biden, and it marks a turning point in our movement’s relations with the administration,” he stated. “We will no longer politely wait for change, or accept self-serving PR stunts, or sit by quietly when the promises that were made to us are broken. We have sufficient numbers to be the deciding margin of victory in most elections, and if our elected officials fail to treat us with respect, we can and shall vote them out of office.”
Honeysuckle Creative Director Sam Long noticed that White House officials and police never made much of an effort to engage with the protestors. While he thought that was “more clever than restricting people’s freedoms,” he also agreed that the whole situation was “a canary in the coal mine. If the Biden political play is… just more broken promises to releasing people from prison, if this was a deliberate midterm election boost to get the stoner vote out, then this pump had to be primed in the media. That’s what this event did, get the word out that [Biden’s announcement without any real effect] is the opposite of what we need.”
“That was the most disappointing thing about the day,” Scroger recalled. “No one from the DNC and no one from the White House came out and spoke to us. And Biden was there. He came back while we were there, he heard us. No one came out and represented any sort of [dialogue]. They didn’t engage with us… You did this political play for votes. Don’t use this plant that people need and build up the hopes of prisoners that they’ll come home and then they’re not.”
What's Next For The Cannabis Community?
And for those in the cannabis community who agree, consider this: Use the midterm election as an opportunity to discover the candidates who are pro-cannabis in action-oriented ways, who are genuinely invested in bringing people home from prison. Find candidates who will help Congress deschedule and legalize the plant once and for all. Research candidates who will hold Biden accountable for false promises, even (and especially) if they are in the same party. Show the system that the will of the people holds power - and wield it wisely.
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Featured image: Steve DeAngelo (left) and Richard DeLisi (right) protest outside the White House with M1 of Dead Prez (background, right) and cannabis activists (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc. @tissuekulture