The Last Prisoner Project: A Journey to Free Cannabis Prisoners and Revitalize Communities

A.W. Naves
February 13, 2023

If you’re looking to get started in the cannabis business or interested in cannabis policy reform, you’re going to want to know about the Last Prisoner Project, co-founded by Andrew DeAngelo, executive coach and founder of the Andrew DeAngelo Consulting Company.

Andrew has been a part of the growing cannabis industry for the last 35 years. He has spent much of this time advocating for the legalization of cannabis and reform of cannabis laws. He has spearheaded voter campaigns for the legalization of cannabis for medical and adult-use in multiple states.

In a two-part interview on the Kaya Cast podcast, Andrew discusses his nonprofit efforts, the history of the cannabis industry, where it is now, and where it’s headed. He also has some helpful information on what you can do to make your business stand out from the crowd. 

What is the Last Prisoner Project?

Last Prisoner Project is a nonprofit that helps release people from prison who have been charged with a cannabis offense while helping to re-establish them in society by gaining clemency and pardons. For those who are still incarcerated, the organization provides commissary funds to help improve their quality of life in prison while they await the outcome of pending appeals.

“The issue is that we have a hundred years of prohibition, propaganda, stigma, stereotyping, and racial aspects. Locking up all the black and brown people and warring against these communities hurt them a lot.”

The nonprofit is funded through the cannabis industry, with programs like Roll it Up for Justice that allows customers to donate the change from their transaction or round up debit and credit purchases. Another program, Partners for Freedom, allows industry suppliers to donate a portion of their sales to the program. Additional funding comes from outside donations from large companies and individuals who support the reform efforts being made.

An elderly woman freely enjoying cannabis products, thanks to the Last Prisoner Project.

How the Last Prisoner Project Evolved

Andrew’s relationship with cannabis began when he was in high school. After a sports injury, his older brother, Steve, introduced him to cannabis to help with the physical and emotional pain he was experiencing. Andrew had planned to become a professional athlete, but with that dream gone and only pain left behind, he was miserable. It was his introduction to the medicinal properties of cannabis that made all the difference in his well-being.

“Cannabis pretty much immediately changed my life. I felt much better physically. I wasn’t depressed anymore. I don't think I would have been able to pull myself out of that darkness without the help of the medicine.”

Andrew also became an activist, promoting the use of cannabis alongside Steve, who was already an outspoken advocate and supplier. At the time, in the early to mid-eighties, cannabis was very much taboo. Not only was it illegal, but people saw its use as strictly recreational. Those who partook in it were looked down upon as “stoners”. So, Andrew’s early days of cannabis use were very much under the radar. 

A woman is putting CBD oil into a mug.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Andrew and those like him, the stigma has been greatly reduced. In the last five years, support for cannabis use has grown immensely among Americans and continues to expand, especially among those who use it to manage physical pain and mental distress. 

“We've built a lot of momentum in the last 10 years. We have our shops. We have our patients and our customers. We have display cases and beautiful facilities. You've got celebrities like Woody Harrelson owning and operating dispensaries now. That never would have happened even five years ago.”

The brothers created an early outlet dedicated to helping their community achieve wellness. They offered free yoga and support groups for veterans. Additionally, they encouraged writing letters to those imprisoned for cannabis and the politicians in charge of changing the laws. In exchange, they gave out free samples of cannabis. This helped solidify their roots in the community. It was from these humble beginnings that the current nonprofit was eventually born.

Future of Last Prisoner Project

The nonprofit will continue to campaign for the automatic release of prisoners who are incarcerated for cannabis possession or distribution when cannabis is legalized in their state. This would include an expungement of their record. So far, there has been no success with getting these measures put into place, but Andrew and his brother, both of whom have spent small stints behind bars for cannabis convictions, continue to advocate for a change in current laws that require a lengthy and expensive appeal process.

“I visited my brother in prison when I was nine years old. My brother was busted several times. I was busted a couple of times myself. Between the two of us, I think we were busted five times and spent quite a bit of time locked up.”

Last Prisoner Project also supports the revitalization of the poor communities from which many of the prisoners they work with are from. Despite legalization, many communities don’t want dispensaries in the wealthier portions of their city. Instead, dispensaries are being established in poor or industrial neighborhoods, away from the view of opponents. This serves to elevate the community with new industries, but it continues to be a struggle for many new cannabis retailers to survive. You have to find an edge to stay alive.

An elderly man is enjoying his freedom outdoors, thanks to the Last Prisoner Project

Tips for Standing Out in the Cannabis Industry

When Andrew and Steve opened Harborside in Oakland, they were operating in the early days of legalization for medicinal cannabis. There were a lot of hoops to jump through to get a license and navigate the murky waters around cannabis distribution. Andrew uses this experience to help other dispensaries establish a footprint and grow.

“We learned everything that was wrong with dispensaries and knew that if we took all those lessons and solved all those problems, we might be able to help a whole bunch of people.”

One of the biggest trials the brothers faced was government regulations, including high IRS rates. Hiring, training, and maintaining quality staff was also a challenge. Then, there was ongoing marketing. It was difficult to promote and maintain steady business beyond the initial novelty of the store. Andrew uses the experience he gained from starting his cannabis retail outlet to help his clients grow their cannabis businesses. 

Two women discussing the positive effects of the Last Prisoner Project.

Andrew recommends 6 tips for getting started in the cannabis retail industry:

  1. Dispensary staff should understand the products they are selling and use them personally. This allows them to speak from first-hand knowledge about the products you offer customers.
  2. Offer your employees cannabis education so they can speak knowledgeably with your customers and adhere to the cannabis laws. Informed employees can help grow your business and increase customer loyalty.
  3. Develop strong relationships with your vendors. Your relationship should be an equal give and take. They sell you quality products and you provide them with purchase volume. You will each thrive.
  4. Ensure that the quality of your products matches your price point. You want to be known as a source of consistently excellent cannabis products.
  5. Be aware of what is most popular on the market and what you can legally provide. Give your customers what they want to maximize profits, but also offer new products when possible.
  6. Forge your own path. Find a way to make your business stand out from the competition. 
“I advise clients to zag when everybody is zigging. Then, you can differentiate yourself in the marketplace.”

Andrew is a longtime advocate for the legalization of cannabis and a strong advocate for cannabis law reform. Not only is he a voice for the people affected by cannabis criminalization, but he is also an expert, well-positioned to help establish and grow your cannabis business. 

You can learn more about Andrew’s journey through advocacy and entrepreneurship and the Last Prisoner Project by checking out our two-part Kaya Cast interview now.

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February 2023


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