The criminal justice system in America needs a new middle name. Its many roots in hypocrisy run deep in this country, but one of the most egregious ways that it has negatively impacted the society it is tasked with protecting has been the crutch/crowbar of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing.
First implemented by the U.S. Congress with the passage of the Boggs Act in 1951, ironically the act was specifically aimed at the cannabis plant making a first-time possession offense subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 2-10 years and up to a $20,000 fine.
The 1960s, in general, showed just how effective that policy was when it came to deterring America’s youth away from the Devil’s Lettuce. So, in 1970 Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentencing for cannabis offenses.
In the 80s, however, the country once again went to war. Not in some jungle or desert overseas, but here at home with the doomed War on Drugs. Congress again began to meddle with marijuana and in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed, placing pot back in the crosshairs of mandatory minimums of 2-5 years for your first offense and 5-10 years for your second.
This weaponization of the Controlled Substances Act created a virtual club for federal prosecutors to use to try to beat plea deals out of non-violent defendants. Federal prosecutors pride themselves on their success rate once/if a case goes to trial. The best way for them to keep that stat inflated is to take easy cases to court and scare the shit out of people tied to the difficult ones in hopes that they take a deal instead.
Those who choose to fight for their freedom are resented by the feds and often feel the full force of the corrupt criminal justice system come down upon them. Such was the case for a man named Weldon Angelos who, when convicted on federal firearm and cannabis charges in 2004 and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison, even drew sympathy from the judge handing down the sentence.
“The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational,” Federal Judge Paul Cassell stated at sentencing. “It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape.” The judge also went on the record to say that the punishment he was being forced to dole out was unjust and that he hoped that then-President George W. Bush would commute the sentence “to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment” as soon as possible.
That’s not how “justice” is supposed to work.
LIES & THE LYING LIARS WHO TELL THEM
At the age of 23 years old, Weldon Angelos was living the dream in Salt Lake City, Utah of all places. The son of a Greek immigrant, Angelos had founded a highly successful rap label called Extravagant Records and was putting in work with some of the top names in the game like Snoop and 2Pac.
As his status grew, Angelos wound up on the radar of federal investigators when his name slipped off the lips of a local rat who was being pressed on his own narcotics and firearms charges and was looking for any way out of trouble. Seeking a “downward departure” on his own pending charges, this man (a childhood friend of Angelos’s) turned confidential informant for the feds and immediately went to work trying to set up his old acquaintance.
In three separate transactions in 2002, investigators with the Salt Lake City Metro Gang Unit entrapped Angelos and witnessed him sell a total of 24 ounces of weed to their informant – weed that was later given a value of just $300 per transaction. When those low-level deals failed to move the needle for the feds, the rat began to hit Angelos up asking for coke and guns and that’s when Weldon cut off all communication with him.
Unsatisfied, the feds kept digging and eventually tried to tie Angelos’s only prior run-in with the law – possession of a firearm as a teen – to this new case. In June of 2002, they got the opening they needed when Angelos was arrested and was found to be in possession of a legally acquired firearm.
Detective Jason Mazuran (now the SWAT Commander in Salt Lake City) fed this info back to their informant and suddenly the story changed significantly. Even though the rat nor the witnessing officers ever mentioned seeing a firearm during the three weed deals, those original police reports were retroactively edited to say that the informant saw a gun on Angelos all three times, elevating the alleged crimes and the potential punishment associated with them.
Angelos was offered a “deal” to “just” serve 15 years in federal prison in exchange for a guilty plea on one of three counts of drug dealing and one firearms charge. He declined. So they drafted a superseding indictment – the punishment for not falling in line and protecting their precious conviction rate – charging Angelos with five separate 924[c] offenses, 20 charges total, carrying a combined mandatory minimum sentence of 105 years in federal prison.
Despite not one shred of evidence that Angelos was strapped during those three weed deals, including the original debriefings done with the rat, law enforcement officers and the informant all testified that he was packing heat at the time and the jury bought the lies and in 2013 convicted Angelos on 13 drug, firearm, and money laundering charges and three counts of ‘possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime’. The up and coming, successful businessman and father of two young sons was handed a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years with a scheduled release date in 2059 when he would be 80 years old.
STOLEN TIME, STILL GIVING BACK
There was a loud public outcry following the sentencing for Angelos’s victimless “crimes”. Even the judge, as mentioned above, crafted a 67-page letter addressed to President Bush, asking him to commute the sentence to 18 years or less, in the name of justice. Soon thereafter, the conservative judge resigned from his lifetime appointment and continued to advocate for Angelos’s release.
But one president’s administration bled into the next, all while Angelos sat behind bars.
Unwilling to succumb to despair, Angelos spent his time locked up doing all he could to better himself. He took classes, studied law, and became a resource for other prisoners – like his friend Luke Scarmazzo – in their own quest for delayed justice.
On May 31st of 2016, in the waning months of the Obama administration, Angelos’s impassioned pleas for presidential clemency were finally heard and after 13 long, unjust, stolen years in prison, Weldon was going home a free man… a free man with a mission.
Weldon Angelos’s story resonated with activists, advocates, and readers across the country who learned of his plight from articles in major publications like the New York Times which opined that his tale of injustice “spurred intense soul-searching”.
Recognizing the power that rested right within his own sphere of influence, Angelos began to form a plan to take on the mighty forces behind cannabis prohibition and mass incarceration. His unique run on this planet has earned Angelos cherished friendships with everyone from A-list actors, to influential politicians, to convicts deprived of justice.
After many failed attempts over the years to change the law that got him 55 years, Angelos joined Utah Senator Mike Lee and a growing coalition of advocates, including Van Jones and others, to begin working with the Trump administration to gain his support for comprehensive federal criminal justice reform.
“I was invited to the White House a number of times for Prison Reform Summits and events and even conversed with then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions about his harmful policy changes,” Angelos told us in a recent back and forth. “Senators Mike Lee and Cory Booker, and even the Koch brothers, were telling my story around the country and on the Senate floor to convince key Republican senators to support reform.”
In December 2018, Angelos’s coalition succeeded in passing the first comprehensive federal criminal justice reform since 1970, which is now known as the First Step Act (FSA).
Looking back, Angelos says, “As we all celebrated this historic achievement, I thought of Luke Scarmazzo and how, despite the significant reforms in the First Step Act, he would not benefit from the new law, even though his category of offender was the most deserving. I knew I had to change my focus to those in prison for purely cannabis offenses. And I knew we couldn’t sit idly by while people are serving decades in prison for doing the same thing others are making fortunes from.”
That mental seed took root quickly and the MISSION [GREEN] initiative was created.
MISSION[GREEN] advocates for clemency or compassionate release for those serving time in federal prison for cannabis if they would no longer be charged today because of changes to state and federal law and policy.
“We work directly with the White House and a coalition of celebrities, filmmakers, and advocates who believe in our cause,” says Angelos.
MISSION [GREEN] recently filed a celebrity-endorsed letter in support of Luke’s release and successfully advocated for the presidential commutation of Ricardo Montes, the co-defendant of Luke whose clemency petition Angelos personally wrote.
Fortunately, there is still poetic justice in the world and so now Angelos is looking to elbow his way into the legal cannabis space to make room for those like him who he hopes to help set free.
“Given my passion for cannabis, I dreamed of being in the legal industry one day, which led me to create a cannabis brand called REEForm Cannabis. We were accepted into a social equity program that Kush Supply Co launched after being inspired by my story. Kush is providing us with packaging on credit and at an extremely discounted rate. It’s been incredibly difficult to get cannabis businesses (mostly the larger companies) to donate to the cause, so REEForm is pledging to provide monthly payments directly to the commissary accounts of those needlessly suffering in prison for cannabis so that they have money for hygiene, food, phone calls, and other necessities that the prison doesn’t provide. As REEForm grows, so will our giving and advocacy. Cannabis is still illegal under federal law, and there are thousands of men and women serving long sentences for this plant, despite legalization in many states. I believe those who have paid the ultimate price for this cause should be benefiting from the legal industry.”
“REEForm will also give people like Luke an opportunity to have their own brand upon release. In addition to launching my own cannabis brand, we are releasing a feature documentary about my life Executive Produced by NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and directed by Emmy-award winning filmmaker Marc Levin. We hope the film will shed light on the system and what happened to me. In addition to the film and my cannabis brand, I am also going to get more heavily involved with advocating for legalization around the country and on the federal level. Although I believe if the federal government legalizes cannabis, it would be worse for the industry, I believe the better way to go about legalization is to get the federal government out of it completely and de-schedule cannabis.”
As advocates ourselves, we feel so fortunate to call Weldon a friend and a colleague, and so fortunate to have him out and on the streets and on our side in this movement.
You can learn more about MISSION[GREEN], as well as how to become involved, HERE
Learn more about REEForm HERE
The mission continues until nobody sits in jail because of cannabis.