“It’s equally, if not more traumatizing than prison itself.” — Stephanie Shepard.
Imagine paying for a crime for the rest of your life. You’ve paid your dues, and now you’re ready to begin life as a free American again.
But it doesn’t work that way.
The label “felon” restricts your every move, lessening your civil liberties. You’re out of prison but never truly free.
This cruel awakening is the reality for ex-offenders. The cannabis industry is focused on releasing those in prison for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses, but equal attention is needed for the devastating aftermath of incarceration.
“Prison is tough — coming home is tougher. It’s equally, if not more traumatizing than prison itself.”
That’s the reality for Shepard.
Now with a purposeful career at The Last Prisoner Project, she’s an inspiring woman who paid her debt to society — only to come home to more suffering, devastation, and heartbreak.
On a first-time, non-violent conspiracy charge, Shepard was sentenced to 10 years — the mandatory minimum. Shepard entered prison at age 41.
“My term wasn’t 10 years — it was a life sentence.”
Her sentence would prevent her from starting a family and denied her precious time with her aging father, who died before her release. She was not allowed to see him before he passed.
However, she was allowed to attend his funeral, unescorted, and then she walked right back into prison — as if she never left.
Once she was finally released, she had tremendous pressure to function in society immediately.
“I had to get a job in two weeks, I took the first job I had the confidence to apply to, a coffee shop,” she said. “I went in with an ankle monitor on and could only work from this time to this time. At 51 years old, being at a coffee shop felt like a disappointment, but I didn’t have the emotional strength to explain to another person how I ended up as a felon, and would you please give me a chance.”
“I walk differently in these shoes, I’m overly cautious as I am afraid of going back to prison,” said Shepard.
“I still struggle when I see a dispensary and know that people are in there providing for their families and creating intergenerational wealth … while other people are in prison like me. The disparity is so great.”
“I always tell people, it can happen to you,” says Shepard. “Technically, federally, every single person in those dispensaries could go to jail.”
“Following the law to the letter and not the spirit of the law almost ruined my life … I was the first white-collar criminal in the history of cannabis to receive a felony because of my white-collar position…” — Nichole West.
With the rapid expansion of legalized cannabis in Colorado, Sweet Leaf dispensary was reaping the benefits as a consumer brand — until it wasn’t.
West was its vice president before the company’s license was revoked, and she was indicted on felony drug charges.
“The issue at hand is that there is no point in the law that draws a line in the sand and tells us can we sell [to an individual customer] once a day, once a week, or once every so many hours like so many other states … The law simply states “Per Transaction” and gives absolutely no clarity,” as West explained in correspondence to her attorney.
Sweet Leaf’s rise was as dramatic as its fall. In 2018, West served a 30-day sentence and nine months probation. She is now a felon.
West likens the aftermath of incarceration to being half a person. The stigma of being an ex-offender and the doors closed to housing, employment, friendships, and more have made it feel like she is still in prison. She imparted this wisdom related to what happened to her:
• Don’t get comfortable.
• The war on cannabis is not over.
• If you are not willing to lose everything for this plant — perhaps it’s too early for you.
When the sentence is over, no one should continue to be a prisoner of their crimes.
The voices of Shepard, West, and others trying to re-enter society after incarceration are sending a clear message: the federal and state judicial system must expunge and erase records, and federal legalization must occur.
Take action for every Stephanie Shepard and Nichole West. Visit nacb.com and send a support letter to your legislators.
This is a call to action for expungement, erasure, and destruction — not just sealing — of criminal records.
This is a call to eliminate the stigma of incarceration and find ways to welcome people in prison for cannabis back into society, allowing them to live free “in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness,” as is our right as Americans.