The Last Prisoner Project is an organization created by a group of cannabis industry leaders and artists which focuses on rectifying the devastating impacts of the war on drugs, prohibition, and incarceration. Recently, the nonprofit released a report entitled, “Criminal Justice: Cannabis and the Rise of the Carceral State.” The report is an examination of the history of the prohibition of cannabis, racism, and incarceration.

Honeysuckle had the privilege of speaking with the organization’s Director and Policy Advisor Natalie Papillion.

According to the report, from the onset, “America’s drug control strategy had less to do with deterring substance use than it did with public disdain for degenerate races.” How might we go about disengaging racism from the carceral state? 

For nearly a century, America’s policy of marijuana prohibition has been used to defame, discredit, and brutalize Black and brown people. This is not an unfortunate consequence of American policing practices. From the very beginning, the explicit goal of marijuana prohibition wasn’t the public’s health. It was to criminalize members of what Harry Anslinger— the godfather of American drug enforcement—called “the degenerate races”.

In order to dismantle our prejudicial, impractical, and ineffective approach to criminal justice, it’s not enough to simply look at the racial disparities in justice-involvement. Throughout this process, we must reconcile ourselves with this sordid history and then work to separate scientific and medical facts from socially-constructed fiction. In doing so, we cannot presume that our laws (and the practices and policies stemming from their enforcement) are well-intentioned. Nor can we presume that they’re evidence-based. 

Broadly speaking, I think Americans tend to be quite punitive just as a society, almost reflexively so, and we need to reframe what the point, the broader sort of philosophy around criminal justice should be. Overwhelming data and world-class experts have unanimously found that marijuana prohibition (and the criminalization of many other social behaviors) does much more harm than it does good. 

The report mentions that during the 1990s, when law enforcement was focusing its attention from Cocaine to Marijuana, the United States also saw an increase in for-profit prisons and that money plays a massive role in determining the actions of the police, such as in the case of forfeitures. If the system has prioritized profit over lives and consequently recidivism and incarceration over rehabilitation, how can we change this narrative? 

I assume that—at least for the overwhelming majority of American people—the goal of our drug policies and the broader criminal justice system is the safety of all of our communities. 

Put simply, incarcerating 2.3 million people—and ensnaring millions more in an almost-inescapable justice system—has failed to realize this reality. In fact, even the most cursory look at our militarized law enforcement agencies, prejudicial penal code, over-policed minority neighborhoods, shows that our distended and distorted criminal justice system actually has an oppositional impact on America’s health, security, and shared prosperity. 

Decriminalization initiatives, investments in early-intervention programs, and expungement policies—amongst other reforms—are all necessary and needed. But I’d argue that “reform” (at least as it’s conceived of currently) is not enough. We must reimagine our entire approach to criminal “justice”. Policies and programs that are actually effective in ensuring the public interest have been cast aside in favor of political posturing and electoral aspirations. Drug war dogma has become so ingrained in the American consciousness that it’s empowered law enforcement, politicians, and the general public to cast victims as villains, undeserving of the protections explicitly afforded to them by law. 

Law and order rhetoric has been perverted and weaponized—serving only to make our communities less safe Dismantling the carceral state will need to take place outside of police precincts and penal codes. And our efforts can’t stop at the courts or in Congress. They must also target public consciousness, centering the fight for a more justice and effective approach to criminals within the unprecedented energy of today’s social justice movement. 

You are the founder and director of The Equity Organization. Some of your incredible initiatives include investing in the cannabis industry with a highly conscious, ethical approach. As we move towards the legalization of cannabis, how can we ensure that the profits made from this new advent are channeled back into the community?

Over the past century, tens of millions of people have been arrested and incarcerated for marijuana possession alone. With these charges come severe, oftentimes never-ending collateral consequences including but not limited to—an inability to access housing, educational opportunities, or gainful employment.

Over the same time period, the legal marijuana sector has witnessed unprecedented levels of growth. While this new “Green Rush” is minting a new class of cannabis industry millionaires, the spoils are (almost exclusively) flowing to a small group of wealthy, well-connected, and disproportionately white players. This is unacceptable, especially considering the fact that the devastating effects of cannabis criminalization (almost exclusively) impact low-income and/or minority communities. 

While I appreciate the growing popularity of criminal justice reforms that tackle marijuana-related convictions, decriminalization, legalization, and expungement bills don’t go far enough. It’s vital that lawmakers also use these cannabis tax revenues to fund programs that serve the individuals whose lives and communities have been destroyed by the misguided, racially-biased policies of America’s War on Drugs. We need to make sure that cannabis is decriminalized on the federal level. 

Policymakers must also take great pains to ensure this lucrative new sector isn’t just dominated by a handful of conglomerates and/or entrenched interests. Instead, we must pressure our elected officials to craft regulations and develop programming that helps to ensure many of these cannabis-related economic opportunities flow to those most harmed by prohibition.  

The tragedy surrounding the death of George Floyd and others and the protests that have followed have called for defunding the police. Do you think this is a viable solution to the issues of police brutality and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color? 

I do think that we need to reevaluate what policing budgets look like. The militarization of law-enforcement agencies, the rise of civil asset forfeiture, all of those things are “good for police departments” and their affiliated departments. They are not necessarily good for the American people.

One element of that rectification is reallocating budgets. A lot of the police’s work is reactionary. If we were to invest in things like American youth, education, rehabilitation, public health-focused substance use education, we would not see a lot of what we are seeing on the streets with problematic policing and incarceration, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. 

Incarceration is essentially upholding modern say subjugation of people of color. How might we go about dismantling this system?

What is the point of the justice system? Is it retribution? I would argue no, and I think that most people, if they were to spend the time engaging with the issue, would also agree it’s about ensuring that people are safe and healthy.

Right now, our justice system is retributive and not rehabilitative. There are many different individual policies, practices, laws, and statutes that we can enact, but none of those can be enacted unless there is public and political will for it. That’s going to come from the voters, from people calling their legislators, from writing into their elected officials and saying we know that mass incarceration is not effective, counterproductive, and that you need to invest time, energy, money into the system.

Keep in mind, these are our time, energy, and money. These are taxpayer dollars, community funds, and we need to pressure lawmakers into using them in a responsible manner, to put that effort into policy that improves our health and safety. It’s clear right now, it was even clear fifty years ago, that mass incarceration does not do that at all. It does the opposite.

Like you’ve mentioned, patterns of usage of marijuana are similar but disproportionately affect communities of color due to over-policing. How can we rectify this?

What is crime? I think we have this conflation in America that criminal behavior is only criminal behavior if you are caught. So people who are in jail, or who are arrested, are criminals and they are different from people who are not arrested or incarcerated. By any measure, incarceration is not necessarily evidence that a crime has occurred. When we look at cannabis usage rates, we know that 50% of American adults have consumed cannabis before, in violation of federal law. Because something is “a crime” does not make it a morally abhorrent behavior. 

We must decriminalize cannabis on a federal level, we must do so in a way that incentives state and local jurisdictions to decriminalize as well. Right now, that is not necessarily on the table in any political sense, but we know that in state-regulated markets, we still see the over-policing of cannabis amongst communities of color. Federal prohibition gives prosecutors and police departments the legal basis for them to stop & frisk, search people’s cars for contraband, illegal substances, and we know how this is wielded as a tool of racial oppression and social control of these communities. 

A lot of it has to do with education, both with the public as well as our law enforcement agencies, so there has been a lot of ink spilled about the need for diversity training inclusion and unconscious bias training in police departments.  

Drug related offences are nonviolent crimes. What can be done for the millions of people currently in the carceral system for these offences? 

One thing I want to note, as we interrogate this byzantine structure that is the American criminal justice system, it’s worth noting drug-related offences are not always categorized as nonviolent crimes. For example, someone is caught, charged, and convicted of selling cannabis, but they have a firearm in their home and perhaps a previous charge. The combination of these factors could mean they are incarcerated on a violent crime. There is no strict lineation in the American criminal legal system between violent and nonviolent.

For the millions of people currently in the carceral system for these offenses, I think there are a lot of retroactive justice provisions that need to be enacted on the local, state, and federal level. Expungement needs to be part and parcel with any sort of cannabis legalization bill. 

Clemency, on the federal and state level, is another tool that executives (state governors and the White House) across the country have. We need to rethink our entire approach to probation and parole which just extends the amount of managerial control the state has over an individual’s lives, making it difficult for folks to access stable living wages, employment. Similarly, mandatory rehab is incarceration by another name. 

We also need to think about alternatives to incarceration. If we invest in successful rehabilitation programs, if we can invest in comprehensive culturally competent public health & education around problematic substance use, we know we can lessen a lot of these negative repercussions. 

The treatment of prisoners within the system of incarceration is highly problematic, especially apparent in terms of Covid lately. How do we establish a more humane foundation for the treatment of prisoners?

Through incarceration, we are caging people, forcing them to live in substandard conditions with no way out. People who are incarcerated, who have been arrested, are human beings with the same rights and responsibilities as any other resident of the United States. Sub-human, sub-standard conditions only exacerbate the situation, it only creates an environment where rehabilitation is not possible. 

It endangers everyone, those who are incarcerated, those who are not, and I think the Covid-19 crisis has shown that very acutely. We need to reframe the entirety of what our justice system is supposed to do and then build a better justice system and invest in programs and policies outside the justice system that are more effective at accomplishing our goals while standing up to our American values.