Over a decade ago, Oakland native Evelyn LaChapelle was pregnant and finishing up college in L.A., when she did a favor for a friend’s marijuana distribution business. The favor involved the profits, not the plant, and she did it for less than a year. Afterwards, she thought she’d simply move on with her life: focus on her young daughter, her education, and her career ambitions in the hospitality industry. But LaChapelle’s minor role in the operation ultimately changed her life forever—in ways she and her family continue to grapple with to this day. Even after serving time in prison, the repercussions of LaChapelle’s stint with cannabis continue financially and emotionally, leaving her with inadequate resources to rebuild her life and ongoing employment discrimination.
“When I tell strangers I just got out of prison for weed, no one believes me,” she says. “I’m a nonviolent first-time offender with college degrees; I don’t have tattoos on my face. It’s not the mental picture most people have of what inmates ‘look’ like. As the legal cannabis industry increases dramatically—being traded on the stock market—many are still sitting in prison.” Now, she’s passionate about paying it forward: Shortly after her 2019 release, LaChapelle began working with the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit devoted to criminal justice reform for over 40,000 people incarcerated for cannabis crimes at all stages, including clemency, release, reentry, and record expunging. Here, LaChapelle shares the details of her journey, the ongoing challenges she and others face, and how to take action. As told to Alexandra Ilyashov.