BY SUMMER MYATT | Photos Courtesy of Weldon Angelos
In 2004, a passionate, talented, 23-year-old Weldon Angelos was promisingly positioned on the cusp of hip-hop greatness. The young music producer’s unshakeable determination, years of hard work, curiosity, and sheer luck had led him to the epicenter of the early 2000s rap scene, where he found himself brushing shoulders with his artistic idols and establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the music world. Angelos had just signed three up-and-coming artists to his budding new record label, Extravagant Records, in a multimillion-dollar deal; he was collaborating with his friend and well-known rapper, Snoop Dogg, on multiple large-scale projects; and he had just finished producing a hip-hop album featuring some of the biggest names in the industry, including Nas and Tupac Shakur. Undoubtedly, Angelos was building what should have been an empire.
But the reason Weldon Angelos’s name is nationally recognized isn’t because he achieved his dream of being a record label executive, a famous music producer, or an entertainment industry maven. Instead, his hard-earned recognition is a product of his long, unceasing battle through a cruel and unjust prison sentence for a first-time, marijuana-related offense; as a new face of criminal justice reform, he became a leading voice in the movement to end cannabis prohibition in the United States. After serving 13 years of his 55-year sentence, Angelos emerged from his incarceration equipped with the legal knowledge, firsthand experience, political support, and undying persistence that uniquely allows him to help others facing similar situations and change harmful marijuana legislation for good.
Though Weldon Angelos grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, with little in the way of resources or wealth, he found a community, a sense of belonging, and an identity through hip-hop at a young age. “I came from a single parent home, I grew up in government housing projects, and I stood in line for government welfare,” remembers Angelos.
He recalls being 12 years old when Dr. Dre’s iconic 1992 album, The Chronic, was released. The effortlessly cool attitude, era-defining fashion, and weed-smoking culture inherent in The Chronic emboldened and inspired Angelos to experiment with cannabis, which consequently sparked an artistic flame in the young creator. “Cannabis sort of opened up a creative side in me, and I started learning how to play the keyboard and playing with a beat maker at 13 years old,” Angelos shares. By the age of 15, Angelos had become serious about music and was yearning for higher quality production equipment than the studios in Salt Lake had to offer, so he travelled to Los Angeles in hopes of taking his music to the next level.
For someone like Angelos—a stranger from another city with no inside connections, no money, and little professional experience—creating success and gaining notoriety within the bustling hip-hop scene seemed nearly impossible. Quickly though, he found himself making friends with artists in Tupac Shakur’s crew; rising rappers, Daz Dillinger and Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound, who were newly signed to Death Row Records; and perhaps most notably, Snoop Dogg. “We became friends, and I just immersed myself in the hip-hop community and culture,” Angelos says of his unlikely start. “I ended up sleeping on Snoop’s couch, making music with him, going on tour, and producing a whole album for him. It was just a really improbable situation, but it happened, and it was a dream come true.”
Little did Angelos know that while he was busy carving out a space for himself in the rap world, Salt Lake City police were targeting him for a sting operation, planning a series of events that would directly lead to his long-term prison sentence. In the summer of 2002, law enforcement officials set up a series of controlled buys from Angelos, who sold a confidential informant approximately $950 worth of cannabis across three transactions.
This informant later reported to police that a firearm was visible in Angelos's car during one of the buys—a detail which was later used against Angelos, who had no prior criminal record. Angelos comments, “The agents in my case attempted to do multiple transactions, not because they thought I was so dangerous that I needed to be arrested and taken off the streets, but so they could utilize a federal statute that allowed them to stack my sentence.”
The term “stacking” refers to the unrelenting mandatory minimum sentencing penalties outlined in section 924(c) of the United States federal code. While this statute was originally intended to protect citizens from violent, dangerous criminals who posed a real threat to society, it evolved to be most commonly abused by prosecutors to ruthlessly extend sentences for offenders of nonviolent drug crimes. Under this statute, the use—or even simply the presence—of a firearm in a drug trafficking crime greatly increases the mandatory sentence with which the offender can ultimately be charged.
For example, according to section 924(c), the mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time drug offense is 5 years, but a second or subsequent offense calls for a minimum sentence of a whopping 25 years. This means that had Angelos been arrested after his first transaction, he would have most likely received a misdemeanor and been put on probation. But because police knew they could use the statute to their advantage on a first-time offender, they executed two more controlled buys in order to guarantee that Angelos would be charged to the fullest, most cruel extent of the law.
Angelos had unwittingly stepped directly into a fatal trap. His growing fame and success in hip-hop, then-illegal drug use, and his connections to big-time rappers made him a target that police were itching to capture. This plotted scheme against Angelos is just one ugly, glaringly oppressive example of America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system—one with a profound history of using anti-drug legislation to perpetuate systemic classism and racism.
“I ended up being a victim of my own success because of what I was doing in the music industry,” Angelos reflects on the intentions of Salt Lake City's law enforcement at the time. “Bringing that rap, weed-smoking culture to my hometown put the crosshairs on me. They wanted to stop me from creating this bridge, which is why they came at me so aggressively.”
Ultimately, Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison in 2004. The father of two young boys was suddenly facing the cold, unjust reality of not seeing his children grow up, losing the music career he’d worked so hard to create for himself, and throwing away a large majority of his adult life. “I had a whole entire album with the biggest people in hip-hop, and I was really on the verge of creating a very successful record label,” shares Angelos. “But this case—this $950 worth of cannabis—literally destroyed my life. It set me back 13 years.”
Angelos was caught in a thick web of legal red tape, and understandably, he was bitter and frustrated. The United States legal system’s labyrinthine inner workings were not made to be easily understandable or accessible by the large majority of Americans, but he was determined to do everything he could to educate himself.
“I was angry at Congress for making stupid laws like this that prosecutors and agents could abuse for somebody like myself,” says Angelos. “But at the same time, I didn’t have the luxury to be angry because I needed to get myself out of that situation. I really just buried myself in the law books so I could understand not only how I got there, but how I could get out.”
In 2012, the tide began to turn when states like Washington and Colorado started making strides towards the legalization of marijuana. The attitude surrounding marijuana seemed to finally be evolving into one of acceptance, or at the very least, tolerance; but the movement’s momentum was focused primarily on the future of legalization, while the people whose lives had been spent in prison because of the very substance being legalized were treated as an afterthought.
“We were watching state after state legalize,” recalls Angelos, “watching corporations and entrepreneurs become wealthy and enrich themselves while we were still sitting in prison. It was very unfair.” Cannabis was suddenly getting a new reputation, but the people who’d lost their lives to long-term incarceration were still decidedly not.
Though Angelos was doing what he could on the inside of the prison system, what he really needed was help from the outside. Luckily, Angelos was equipped with a network of ardent, well-known entertainment industry friends and a fiercely loyal, devoted sister, Lisa Angelos. As the rappers and celebrities close to him began using their platforms to make waves in the news cycle and bring attention to Angelos's story, the public became outraged by what had been allowed to happen.
Even Paul Cassell, the U.S. district court judge who sentenced Angelos, publicly spoke out at the time of the mandatory sentencing, and again when he later sought presidential pardon for Angelos from President Obama and George W. Bush, calling the sentence, “unjust, cruel, and irrational.” He eventually cited the case as one of the main reasons he chose to step down from the federal bench. Before long, politicians, senators, and legislators took notice and began speaking up about the injustice Angelos was facing.
Angelos beams, “I had people all the way on the left, I had people all the way on the right, and people in the middle that were fighting for me—even my own judge. We called it the Unlikely Allies Coalition.” And truly, the list of people united in fighting for Angelos's justice was astounding, including Republican Senator Mike Lee, the conservative billionaire Charles Koch, former FBI director Bill Sessions, as well as singer Alicia Keys, Democratic Senator Cory Booker, and Snoop Dogg. Finally, in 2016, after an incredible bipartisan effort, Weldon Angelos was released from prison, and in 2020, President Trump pardoned him.
But shrouded by this public facade of unity and hope lies the backwards, dystopian value system currently ruling the culture of the United States. Weldon recognizes that his freedom and much of his current success stems from widespread media coverage of his story, celebrity endorsement, and his political connections; but the underprivileged, uneducated individuals who similarly find themselves unjustly incarcerated—largely minorities and people of color—do not have access to the same resources, legal assistance, and public attention Weldon had.
Angelos admits, “Most of the people in [prison] don’t have a sister like I had who was articulate and able to go out and fight for me. They don’t have senators and celebrities and rappers to help them get media attention so they could get out. I knew that I was given something special and unique—that I had to use that to benefit those who don’t have those advocates. I knew I had to be the voice.” Thus, The Weldon Project was born.
The Weldon Project, at its core, is about freedom. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing financial aid to individuals serving prison time for cannabis-related offenses, affecting social and legislative change, and most importantly, restoring the liberties of those who have been unjustly incarcerated. On the mission of his advocacy work, Angelos says, “To me, there’s nothing more important than freedom. There are thousands of people like me that are still sitting in federal prison while simultaneously, predominantly white entrepreneurs continue to enrich themselves despite violating the same federal statute that those of us who are incarcerated violated. That hypocrisy is an injustice.”
Since his release in 2016, Angelos has been instrumental in the passage of The First Step Act, which addressed the oppressive 924(c) mandatory minimum guidelines, eliminated the ability for federal prosecutors to stack charges, and ensured that what happened to Angelos won’t happen to another first-time offender again; he created the Cannabis Freedom Alliance which aims to bridge across party lines and end cannabis prohibition on the federal level; and he launched Mission Green, which has helped secure the release of approximately 30 individuals from prison so far.
In April 2021, Angelos penned a letter to Biden urging that he create a clemency program for cannabis offenders like Terrell Davis, also known as rapper Ralo. The letter was cosigned by rappers Drake, Kodak Black, and Killer Mike as well as former basketball player Kevin Garnett and the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. But this list of his accomplishments is far from comprehensive. Angelos understands that the issue to which he’s dedicated his life is complex, multi-faceted, and controversial, and he’s in the fight for as long as it takes.
When Angelos isn’t writing motions for people serving prison time, making phone calls to legislators, or doing behind-the-scenes work for his advocacy projects, he’s picking up the pieces and taking steps toward fulfilling the dreams he had when he was younger. He says, “My best work never made it out because of my incarceration. When I got out, music was so changed that I wasn’t able to do anything with it.” But now, he has plans to release the album that should have made him famous, he signed a talented new artist who was formerly incarcerated, and he has countless other big creative projects in the works.
“I hope one day I’ll be able to get back to focusing solely on music and trying to get that career back that the government stole from me,” Weldon shares. “But until we end federal prohibition, I have to keep fighting.”
Summer Myatt is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. She has a particular interest in performance art, culture, and social justice issues of today. In her free time, she likes to bike, dance, and crochet hats for her friends.
Coming soon this month, The Mission Green x ST IDES collaboration will be available at MedMen California locations. The collab includes a glass-tipped, keef-dipped 2.1g diamond-infused blunt and the "Cannabis Is Not a Crime" T-shirt. A portion of sales will go to Mission Green to help secure the release of those serving time for cannabis offenses.