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The Times They Are a Changing… But Not for the Cannabis Lifers

As the wave of legalization continues to sweep the nation, many cannabis lifers are still rotting behind bars for non-violent offenses.

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Cannabis Lifers
PHOTO | Adobe Stock

Antonio Bascaro, 84, holds the dubious honor of being the world’s longest-serving cannabis prisoner. After spending 39 years behind bars, Bascaro recently received the news he will be released from federal prison on May 1 of this year.

When I posted news of Bascaro’s upcoming freedom on social media, one commentator joyfully quoted Bob Dylan, Oh the times they are a changing!”

Except they’re not.

Not for people like Bascaro and others like him who are serving life and de-facto life sentences in federal prisons for nonviolent cannabis conspiracies.

Antonio Bascaro

Naturally, Bascaro, his family, and his supporters are thrilled at the news. After nearly four decades of incarceration, he will finally be allowed to go home. But the changing times and loosening cannabis laws had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Bascaro received no special treatment, despite the fact that he is a first time offender. Barack Obama’s clemency push, which did indeed free many prisoners, passed him by. Despite his advanced age and failing health, compassionate release was also denied.

Antonio Bascaro was simply fortunate enough to live long enough to see his de-facto life sentence come to an end. At 84 years old, he now gets to build a life all over again, in a world that looks very different from the one he left behind. Fortunately, Bascaro has a loving family waiting to help him make the transition.

Times may be changing, but the days in federal prison remain the same.

Crystal Munoz

Crystal Munoz, a young mother of two serving 19 years for drawing a map that circumvented a drug checkpoint says, “I deal with the same emotions each passing day, feeling helpless due to not being able to take care of my responsibilities, like my children. I find strength by seeing the things I have to be thankful for. But the time cannot be replaced. The moments that are missed, the milestones that can never be re-experienced.”

First-time offender Craig Cesal — serving a life sentence for cannabis — concurs. “In prison, all days are virtually the same. We awake at the same time, dress the same way, eat at the same time, and go to bed the same way.”

Craig Cesal

Like the Dylan quoting social media commentator, it would be logical for people to assume that with the dominoes of prohibition falling, prisoners incarcerated for cannabis would be released. And in fact, this is happening at the state level in some areas of the country. But the federal justice system, where cannabis remains a Schedule I drug, is an entirely different animal.

Short of Presidential clemency, these prisoners have little hope of ever having a second chance at life. But a little hope can go a long way in federal prison.

When I first began working with cannabis lifers about eight years ago, they too were certain the changing times would at long last provide their ticket to freedom. They were always excited to see photos from rallies where I was speaking or booths we had at Cannabis Cups and other events to bring awareness to their cause.

Back then every news story of cannabis about going mainstream, or every new state that legalized medical or recreational cannabis, was another reason to believe that surely, help would soon be on the way for those serving LIFE for cannabis.

Over the years, however, I have watched a lot of that enthusiastic hope slowly fade.

From federal prison rec rooms across the country, the lifers have continued to watch cannabis stories dominate the news. But it is never their stories.

They hear how celebrities, and even former politicians whose policies helped incarcerate them, are now cashing in on the weed game and making big profits. Yet they remain locked away.

They also hear how cannabis is helping people with health problems, including doing miraculous things for children.

John Knock

John Knock, a first-time offender sentenced to not one but two life sentences for a nonviolent cannabis conspiracy case, recently wrote to me from his prison in New Jersey about a news story he saw about seniors in Orange County, California being bussed to a local medical marijuana dispensary.

For Knock, who has been incarcerated since 1996, the story illustrated just how much the world, in relation to cannabis, has indeed moved on. He could understand how much it is now embracing cannabis and it made him happy to see that seniors now have access to this important medicine. But it also made him realize just how much that same world seems to have completely forgotten about the people like him, who remain rotting in prison for the same substance.

Despite the tireless work of a handful of activists, for the most part, cannabis lifers remain what they always have been, the dirty little secret of the American justice system.

Tell the average citizen that people are serving life sentences for cannabis in the United States and they will either be dumbfounded or not believe you at all.

Even prison staff find it hard to believe these guys are in for life for cannabis, as the lifers are regularly questioned about the absurdity of their sentences.

For federal cannabis prisoners serving endless sentences, hope may wax and hope may wane, depending on the political climate of the world outside. Yet hope always remains a most valuable commodity.

Edwin Rubis

Edwin Rubis, in the midst of serving a forty-year sentence for cannabis, says, “The only way that my prison experience has been somewhat sane is by remaining hopeful that one day I will be released and live a normal life. Without that hope, I do not know where I would be. Probably dead. Because these past 21 years that I have served in prison have been like a hellish nightmare day in day and day out. I try not to think about the next 19 years that I have left to serve.”

Parker Coleman, 33, will be in his 80s by the time his sentence is completed, much like Antonio Bascaro is now. Despite staring a living death sentence in the face every day, Coleman’s strength and optimism remain strong.

Parker Coleman

“I don’t have hope,” he says, “I BELIEVE, and I know the end result. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, I WILL be resurrected from this death one day.”

Coleman even made a personal and heartfelt appeal to the one person who can actually grant him a second chance, President Donald Trump. “There is power in thoughts and words. A system of actions, backed up by belief, always produces results,” he says.

In the meantime, Coleman and rest of the cannabis lifers hopefully await the next action from the White House and the office of the pardon attorney.

About the Author

Cheri Sicard is the author of Mary Jane: The Complete Cannabis Handbook for Women, The Easy Cannabis Cookbook, and more. Her “hobby” is helping prisoners serving life sentences for nonviolent cannabis offenses. Find her website at CannabisCheri.com and Cannademy.com.

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Culture

Yes, You Can Buy & Consume Weed at Outside Lands Festival

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Grass Lands Festival
PHOTOS | Courtesy of Outside Lands

Outside Lands festival is making history for the second year in a row with confirmation that consumption will be allowed at Grass Lands, the event’s cultivated cannabis experience.

It gets better.

Not only is on-site consumption allowed, you will also be able to buy cannabis products.

According to the L.A. Times, California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control approved on-site sale and consumption to people 21 years and older. The city of San Francisco had already granted its own permit for cannabis use at the event and has suggested other events in the city may also be granted such licenses.

“I think Outside Lands is unique in that it’s a large outdoor music festival in the park — not typically where cannabis events have been licensed,” said bureau spokesman Alex Traverso

“Permitting Grass Lands as the inaugural event is the first step in creating a safe cannabis event space for those aged 21 years and older,” said Marisa Rodriguez, director of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis to the L.A. Times. “Attendees will be able to purchase and consume lab-tested products away from the rest of the venue’s attendees.”

Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener also voiced his approval.

“Cannabis is part of our culture — particularly at music festivals — and it makes sense to allow people to obtain it legally,” Wiener said. “We need to move past prohibition, which doesn’t work.”

According to the Outside Lands website, as long as you have a valid Government-issued photo ID, everything from pre-rolls, flower, edibles, cartridges, and more will be available.

And while there may be designated consumption areas if you’re smoking or vaping in Grass Lands, edibles or beverages can be consumed anywhere within the event’s grounds.

The Grass is Greener at Grass Lands Festival

Outside Lands made history last year with the inaugural Grass Lands event, becoming the first curated cannabis experience at a major American music festival. Held South of the Polo Field (SoPo), Grass Lands was embraced by the extended Bay Area cannabis community as the perfect place to educate, elevate and celebrate cannabis.

“Much the way that Wine Lands celebrates Napa and Sonoma as the leaders in U.S. wine production, Grass Lands will shine a light on the area’s importance as pioneers in the cannabis world,” said Outside Lands co-producer Rick Farman.

This year, presented with Eaze, Grass Lands promises you even higher experience at America’s first legal cannabis consumption music event.

Grass Lands is part of Outside Lands, this weekend 9-11 August in San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Park. Headliners include Paul Simon, Childish Gambino and Twenty One Pilots. Be part of history. Get your tickets here.

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A Frank Conversation with Mowgli Holmes, CEO of Phylos Bioscience

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Phylos Bioscience
PHOTO | Supplied

Earlier this year, Phylos Bioscience announced its plan to launch an in-house breeding program. The news prompted outrage within the community, sparking conversations about intellectual property and genetics research across the cannabis industry.

Many cultivators felt betrayed by the idea that the Portland-based cannabis science company would use data they submitted to the Phylos Galaxy — a comprehensive database that documents the cannabis genome — to steal vital cultivar information and use it against them.

Phylos released a statement assuring growers not to worry, that their fears were unfounded. They insisted they weren’t going to use their submitted data to create super strains to put craft cannabis growers out of business. None of that data can be used for breeding, and the breeding work they do will be primarily for large-scale biomass producers. The varieties they do develop for the craft flower market will be released under open-source licenses and should help to keep craft growers in business.

Now, a couple of months have passed. For the most part, Phylos has kept out of the media spotlight. Cannabis Aficionado spoke to CEO Mowgli Holmes to learn more about their approach to large-scale agriculture, plant patents and IP rights, and the future of cannabis.

Growers submitted their genomic data to you with the understanding that it would not be used to enhance any breeding programs. How did you not foresee this backlash from the industry following the announcement of your breeding program?

We didn’t foresee this reaction because this data isn’t useful for plant breeding. It’s just genetic sequence data, with no information on the plants themselves. The purpose of the galaxy has always been to empower everyone to learn from their plant’s data by comparing it to everything else. We made the galaxy and the raw data publicly available so that everyone could have full access to it.

I don’t think this question has really been about the data. It’s about having a company in the cannabis industry that is working with people from big ag. The science we’re using comes from those companies, and we’re hiring scientists who understand it. We’re also a company that is focused on environmental and social impact, and on moving agriculture toward sustainable practices. Cannabis growers don’t trust big ag and they don’t see how we could be working with people from those companies and still have these progressive goals. But we do.

You claim that your new breeding program will focus on large-scale agriculture. Why then do you think there is such a negative response to your breeding announcement from cannabis growers and craft cultivators?

Phylos concentrates on the global market because that’s where the plant needs the most work. I think that a lot of small growers assume that large-scale ag means lousy cannabis, so they don’t respect it. But it matters how the large growers operate. Phylos believes large-scale cannabis and hemp agriculture can actually operate sustainably and we’re committed to doing our part to move it in that direction. We also want to see the craft flower market thrive. We won’t be doing a lot of work there, but when we do it’s going to have a positive impact. The flower plants we release will be good for growers, and breeders will get to keep working with them.

Your presentation to investors at Benzinga seemed to confirm that you will use the submitted data to breed new strains. Why did you tell that to investors if it isn’t your intention? Why do you think your words were misconstrued?

That is not what I said to investors. But when I said that our testing business was a valuable data collection tool, I meant it. Having a high-throughput molecular genetics lab allowed us to generate lots of valuable data, but all of that work has been independent of the customer data we collected. As I said, the data we collected from customers cannot be used for breeding, period.

The data collected from customers was very limited and was made public via the Phylos Galaxy in order to prevent patent infringement and support greater transparency within the cannabis industry’s supply chain. It’s a tool for the industry, including our competitors, to use in understanding varieties and the evolution of cannabis. It’s not a tool that can help with breeding except in a very general way by letting people see relationships — and it’s available to everyone to use in that way.

Have you kept any of the genetic data so you could replicate any of the submitted material via plant tissue propagation?

No, we wouldn’t do that and it’s not possible. You can’t create a living plant from data and you can’t create a living plant from a dead tissue sample. We are not using any of our customer’s plants in our breeding program. The Galaxy is evidence that our customer’s plants belong to them.

We do have a large collection of living cannabis varieties, which we’ve acquired through fair and generous contracts with breeders, and we’re continuing to in-license new varieties.

Phylos scientists in the lab. PHOTO | Supplied

Was patenting genetics, or your plans to use the data to create your own breeding program, in any fine print that people may have missed?

We’ve never had any plans to use that data for breeding because we always knew it wouldn’t be robust enough to breed with. But we were very openly and publicly building a breeding program meant to support other people’s plant work with our scientific tools. We just weren’t originally intending to do the actual plant work ourselves.

The largest part of a modern plant breeding program is the data infrastructure and we were clear very early on that we were developing genetic markers for breeding. As we’ve said, the customer data had no information on the physical characteristics of the plants themselves and couldn’t be used for breeding. We believed that this simple scientific fact would keep people from making the mistake of thinking we were using it for breeding.

As far as patenting goes, our position has always been that plant patents are fine, as long as they’re responsibly narrow and don’t cover entire categories of plants. Overly broad patents are bad for innovation and bad for the cannabis industry.

The Open Cannabis Project (OCP) closed at the end of May in response to your announcement, citing “deception” as the one reason. What are your thoughts on this situation?

We helped start the OCP to create a transparent and open-source repository of cannabis data that could enlarge the public domain and help to preserve genetic diversity in cannabis. I resigned from the board in order to ensure there was no connection between OCP and Phylos, but the board was already planning to dissolve the organization in December 2018 based on difficulty fundraising.

The OCP knew we were doing breeding work, they knew the science we were using was from big ag and they knew we were going to be willing to apply for limited patents. The OCP themselves have always supported limited patents. They also know how strong my personal commitment is to doing things differently than they’re done in traditional agriculture.

Nothing illustrates the intense emotion around this issue better than this does. Despite knowing all of that, I think they were genuinely shocked to see that we’re working with and hiring people from big ag companies. Progressives see those companies as truly evil, and they don’t have a framework for understanding how good people could possibly be working with them.

Unfortunately, nobody on the OCP board contacted us before they issued their statement. The idea that you could have one foot in both worlds and still be committed to being an ethical company — that’s impossible for many people to accept. But that stance is a decision to leave all of this scientific power in the hands of people you don’t trust.

How can growers trust you when you say you are not using their genomics and data to advance your own breeding program?

Anyone who looks at the science comes to see that you can’t use this data for breeding new plants.

But we are seeing that trust doesn’t come from scientific facts alone. We’re a mission-driven company and eventually people will see the benefits of the work we’re doing. The dust will clear and we’ll be working away, and then people will see.

Why do you think people were so quick to jump to the conclusion that you are using your position and power to harm the very people that you have spent so many years trying to protect?

This is the part that’s hard for me. Phylos has always been clear in our mission to bring science to cannabis and new approaches to agriculture, to preserve genetic diversity, and to help small farmers. It’s pretty crazy to find out that people can overnight decide you don’t mean the things you say. But again, I think the assumption is that if we had good intentions we wouldn’t be hiring scientists and advisors from the major ag companies. We need these people because they understand the complexities of the large-scale agricultural system better than anyone and they are uniquely positioned to help us change it for the better. The team of scientists that have joined Phylos is building an agricultural model that is profitable and sustainable for farmers. We always meant it when we said we cared about the craft flower community. But we also care about agriculture as a whole.

What is your desired achievement with your breeding program?

I got a lot of shit for saying this, but I’m just going to say it again: Phylos is going to create outrageous new plants. They’re going to work better for farmers and for consumers and they’re going to be constantly evolving.

We also believe that it’s important for us and the industry to give both fair credit and fair compensation to the breeders who have created amazing plants already and those that continue to do so. We are already signing agreements to make sure those breeders get paid as they should, and we hope it becomes the standard way of acquiring plants in the industry.

Phylos has built its mission around preserving the genetic diversity we’ve inherited. At the same time, we’re going to drive forward into the future of what this plant can do, which really will be incredible. We need to do both of those things.

We’re combining advanced science with sustainability principles. We’re using traditional breeding driven by genomic knowledge. We’re studying methods that let farmers minimize inputs costs at the same time as they’re building healthier soil. We’re going to help farmers profit from sustainability — and we’re going to make sustainability work better because it’s driven by hard data.

Where does Phylos Bioscience go from here?

We have to accept that some people see big ag companies as the enemy and they don’t trust anyone who’s working with them. But we need to have companies who can use the science from big ag in ways that are driven by a sense of social responsibility. We need to have companies who can figure out how to support environmentally sustainable approaches as they use this science. We need to have companies that are a bridge between these two worlds.

Phylos has one foot in the cannabis world and one foot in the world of large-scale agriculture. The role of our company is to be a bridge between these two worlds that don’t trust each other. To make it work, we’re going to have to be really committed to maintaining our values and measuring our success based on them. We’re going to have to be a little bit like Switzerland and work with everyone.  We have to accept that we’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re going to make damn sure the farms that work with us are successful.

To us, that means that they’re sustainably successful in ways that work long-term for them, and their workers, and the environment. For most of these larger farms the first step is simple: start growing hemp.

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Why Jay-Z’s Stand on Social Justice Makes His Move Into Weed Important

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jay-z
PHOTO | @JayZ

Rap superstar Jay-Z has announced his partnership with California-based cannabis company Caliva, serving as their Chief Brand Strategist on a multi-year deal.

Per a statement released to detail the partnership, Jay-Z’s duties on the job will include outreach efforts, brand strategy and creative decisions, giving him a further outlet to focus his efforts in “advocacy, job training and overall employee and workforce development.”

In his new role, Jay-Z plans to shine a spotlight on social injustices when it comes to cannabis, particularly in the realm of criminal justice, cannabis use and legalization.

“Anything I do, I want to do correctly and at the highest level,” said Jay-Z in the statement. “With all the potential in the cannabis industry, Caliva’s expertise and ethos make them the best partners for this endeavor. We want to create something amazing, have fun in the process, do good and bring people along the way.”

Jay-Z’s Push for Justice

While it’s clear that the billionaire musician has always been about good business and making money, this is more than just a financial choice for Jay-Z.

Having long been dedicated to social justice initiatives before entering the cannabis business, this is another outlet for him to advocate for and boost the black community in an area they’ve suffered disproportionately, the criminal justice system.

This isn’t his first foray into addressing such issues either.

Jay-Z was named as an executive producer on a series about Kalief Browder, a young black man from the Bronx who died via suicide after three years of imprisonment without a trial, has been outspoken in his support for fellow rapper Meek Mill during his legal troubles and partnered will Meek Mill to launch the Reform Alliance, a group dedicated to criminal justice reform.

When it comes to social justice, this isn’t the rapper’s first rodeo.

A Closer Look at Caliva

Already big fish in the ever-growing legal cannabis pond, the San Jose-based company has a tight grip on the Bay Area’s legal cannabis industry. Carried in over 250 retailers in California and in charge of about 150,000 square feet of space between their cultivation, manufacturing and retail facilities, it’s no wonder the company is Jay-Z’s pick when it came time to ink a deal.

Caliva was all for the opportunity to bring the rap mogul onboard, with CEO Dennis O’Malley heaping praise on the rap superstar in a statement.

“For Jay-Z to seek out Caliva as a partner is humbling and confirms our mission of being the most trusted name in cannabis,” said O’Malley. “To find that we were in complete alignment around our values and ethos was just a home run. We believe this partnership is unparalleled in this or any business and we could not be more pleased to be working with him and have him as our Chief Brand Strategist.”

Celebrities and Cannabis: A Likely Match

While this deal is huge for Caliva, Jay-Z isn’t the only high-profile celebrity to play ball with them. Earlier this year, Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Joe Montana was among a group of investors who locked in an impressive $75 million in fundraising for Caliva.

Montana said at the time that he hoped “Caliva’s strong management team will successfully develop and bring to market quality products that can provide relief to many people and make a serious impact on opioid use and addiction.”

Jay-Z is also one of the many rappers that have jumped on board the legal cannabis money train, joining the likes of Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J and Cypress Hill. Smart investors all have their money in the legal cannabis market, and Hov seems to be no exception.

After all, the guy who rapped “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” seems like the type of guy who knows a good deal when he sees one.

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