While you and I may be free to consume, buy, sell and even read publications about cannabis openly, there are still thousands of US citizens who are denied their freedom for doing just that. Given legalized states’ flourishing pot markets and the opaque operations of our prison systems, it’s all too easy to overlook their continued suffering, but not for Stephanie Landa.
After serving five years for growing marijuana within California’s medical marketplace, Landa co-founded the nonprofit Freedom Grow, selling refreshments at High Times events and donating 100 percent of the proceeds to nonviolent cannabis offenders still in jail, who depend on these funds for basic necessities and pen-pal letters for connection to the outside world. DOPE interviewed Landa about her at once harrowing and inspiring experiences while incarcerated, the seeming indifference of some in the legal cannabis industry and the burden of carrying a torch for prisoners of an unjust war now raging for nearly 50 years.
How would you describe your relationship to cannabis?
I love pot. When I was 16 in 1959, I’d always had stomach problems and GI scares, I digested my food in one hour instead of seven. My cousin who was a couple years older than I was said, “Smoke this joint.” I smoked it and could feel my stomachache go away, so every time I ate I smoked. So, I started smoking at a very young age and realized I needed pot.
How did that relationship change after you got busted for growing it in 2002?
Well, I didn’t go to jail for four years because I was fighting it. When I was in jail, I smoked hash for the first two years, then I got one joint, which made me reek of pot, and my roommate turned me in. I got an extra year. So for the next couple of years I didn’t smoke pot, and had stomachaches all the time, but they were testing me every other week.
“… Even though it’s legal right now—well, quasi-legal—you could still go to jail for [cannabis], because there are so many rules. Now if you’re doing what you’ve always done with the friends you’ve always done it with, you’re doing something against the law. I’m kind of tired of the illegal thing.”
How did you feel when you were released and able to smoke it again?
When I was in the halfway house, I could get out every day, so I’d smoke pot. At that time they allowed me to take Marinol, a prescription drug which gives you a dirty test excuse. When I went to my friend’s house and smoked for the first time in years, I was so paranoid, I was washing my hands with lemon. I thought everybody could tell, but nobody could tell, and I went back to smoking everyday again. I still smoke every day, but I don’t tell everybody. I used to tell everyone … Then I realized that getting thrown under the bus by yourself is not a good idea.
People are more tolerant now. I have Freedom Grow, and there are so many people that say, “I never thought that people go to jail for pot now?” Nobody thinks that people are in jail, and yet I just mailed out 75 envelopes with money orders. Most of them are lifers.
Where do you think are the other biggest gaps in public awareness around these issues or even just the offenders’ experience in prison?
First of all, most people, if they think people are in jail for pot, they think it’s like Club Fed. People are being tortured in there. In my prison, there was black mold, and every year they would paint it white in a section and then it would bleed back through again. That’s how I got liver, stomach, and spleen cancer when I got out. I almost died. I’m missing five teeth, because they only pull them, they don’t fill cavities.
And even though it’s legal right now—well, quasi-legal—you could still go to jail for [cannabis], because there are so many rules. Now if you’re doing what you’ve always done with the friends you’ve always done it with, you’re doing something against the law. I’m kind of tired of the illegal thing.
How did you start the Landa Prisoner Outreach Program (LPOP) and evolve that into Freedom Grow?
I started it in prison—you know, you need something to do. The last two years I was in prison I worked in the library, and my girlfriend Sarah Armstrong sent cartons of books to me. Then when I got out, I got cancer. I had to shut down LPOP, and then when I was feeling better, I started going to High Times events and going around with a little cup asking for money so I could put it on people’s books.
AhhsWeHo is the dispensary run by Dr. Dina. She saw me and said, “We have to change this. We have to sell something; you can’t just ask people for money, they’ll never give it to you!” So we formed Freedom Grow, and we sold hot chocolate and slushies. At [one] event, we raised like $3,700—I was in shock. So I started sending everybody money, instead of just books.
VICE came around and did a commercial of me, then all of a sudden people started sending me money. Then Organa Brands, last year they had a golf tournament for us that raised $25,000. So through them, I stopped selling hot chocolate. I’m 73, almost 74, I need to not sell hot chocolate. It was a lot of work. I did Hempfest, and we had a dunk tank, which was really great. But that’s how we raise money, and I send 100 percent right to the books of someone in jail. And it’s all nonviolent pot offenses, we investigate to make sure there were no guns, no other drugs.
How does receiving those funds and pen-pal letters change the experience of prison?
Well, there’s a reason that our lighters say, “Bringing light to a dark cell.” We get letters from people in there who say they haven’t smiled or received letters from anyone for 20 years. Organa Brands, by the way, has 100 people as pen-pals out of 400 employees, including the owner. We get letters that say—like the one that gave us that slogan—he never knew there were people like us out here, because he hadn’t heard from anybody. People that have done 30, 40 years, tell us, “Without communication from you, we had lost hope.”
I want to quit doing what I do, because it brings me to prison every single day in my mind. I’m tired of the prison thing already, I wish they’d just let everybody out. But I can’t quit because of these types of letters. I’m ready to not do it, I just don’t know how to quit.
You’re waiting for the world to change.
How do you want to change the way that people think about these prisoners?
When you meet me, you think, “oh my god, you were in prison?” because I am an unlikely suspect. First of all, I’m pretty old, and second of all, I’ve never done any other crime. I’m educated and I have a mom and dad and a family. I just don’t have any of the hardship-type stories. There’s a lot of other people like me.
Before it became medically legal in 1996 [in California], I didn’t know anyone in jail for pot. Then we came out of the closet and told people what we were doing, and all of a sudden, started getting arrested. I had written permission from San Francisco, and they turned me over to the Feds. I was very shocked when I went to prison. And when I went to court, I asked the judge, “Where do you think the pot comes from in San Francisco?” He said to me, “My government pays me to believe that it falls out of the sky, so that’s what I believe.” After that, what can you say?
They are letting people out; I have to say that. Five people have gotten out in the last three months. We give everybody $500 when they get out. It doesn’t help much, but they can get a cellphone and little things.
With so many people getting rich off legal cannabis now, how do you think we’re falling short when it comes to taking action for these prisoners?
Well, we’re falling short because when I was in jail, I had money put away, so every month, I got $500 of my own money. That’s how much you really need when you’re in prison—$100 for stamps, $100 for phone calls, and $300 for the commissary. You have to buy everything. If you don’t have money, you can’t buy anything. Now I can only send like $50 to each person. That isn’t much, but it’s something, they can at least call their family. At Christmas time, we send all the kids money and say it’s from their dad or their mom, which is a heartbreaking experience. This one guy who got out last week had four grandchildren that he’s never seen. He was in for 34 years for 2.5 grams of pot in Oklahoma, from 1985. The cases are just unbelievable. And unless you have somebody fighting for you out here, they’ll never let you out.
I don’t talk to people about it, because they never used to let me. Hempfest let me get up on the stage a bunch of times, and that’s only because [others] gave me some of their time. But they never let people like me talk on stage, because they think it’s a depressing subject. It has to be brought up though, that people are still in jail for pot. But the industry’s turned really strange. We’ve all known each other a really long time, and now it’s legal against the illegal, and the legal people want the illegal people to be busted. It’s causing quite the snitch vibe. I shouldn’t be saying things like this because Dina, my partner, has a legal dispensary. Soon to be illegal though, I’ll tell you, because West Hollywood, even though Dina has had that dispensary there since medical became legal, now they won’t give them a license. They can still be medical, but they can’t be recreational, which will drive them out of business. If you have millions of dollars, you can get into this industry now, and if you don’t, you can’t.