Cannabis company confronts history of war on drugs by growing marijuana inside a prison

Cannabis company confronts history of war on drugs by growing marijuana inside a prison

COALINGA, Calif. — Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, baking in the 100-degree heat of the Central Valley, a former prison is in the midst of an unlikely second act.

Inside its cinderblock walls, a company is growing the very product that led some prisoners to be locked up there.

Longtime music manager Dan Dalton and Casey Dalton, his sister, bought the 20-acre site in 2016 for $4.1 million, choosing the location because its dry and sterile environment would provide a secure place to store marijuana.

The purchase also allowed their cannabis company, Evidence, and others that have bought shuttered prisons to come face to face with the lasting effects of the war on drugs, particularly on people of color, as they try to shape the role the industry will play in confronting that legacy.

“We’re moving thousands of pounds of flower now, and I’m going to go home to my family tonight,” Dan Dalton said. “You know … there are people sitting in jail cells right now for personal possession of flower. And the hypocrisy makes no sense to me.”

Evidence grows its plants in the back garden of the former Claremont Custody Center, where prisoners once tended vegetables. Employees cook edible gummies in the prison kitchen and stuff pre-rolled joints in the mess hall.

Dalton said he often thinks about the people who were held there before California voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016.

“I don’t know how they would feel. I think they would probably have mixed emotions about what we’re doing here,” he said. “You know, I can only imagine if I serve time here for the same plant and then this is happening.”

Damian Marley (NBC News)
Damian Marley (NBC News)

Dalton’s longtime music client and a partner in Evidence, Damian Marley, the son of the reggae legend Bob Marley, said he believes prisoners still being held for cannabis violations should be set free.

“I mean, as Jamaican, as a Rasta, as my father’s son, we’ve always been advocates of cannabis as something we use daily in our life, as a part of our spiritual sacrament,” said Marley, who recorded the music video for his song “Medication” in the former prison among the leafy green plants.

“The fact that cannabis is now legal, you know, we want our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated to come home.”

Aside from making the site a symbol of the impact of incarceration, Evidence donates part of every purchase to the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping nonviolent cannabis offenders get out of prison and have their records expunged.

“Our saying here is we grow weed at a prison to help people get out of prison for growing weed,” Dalton said.

Evidence packages its product in police evidence bags to encourage customers to reflect on its mission.

In 2020, over 350,000 people in the U.S. were arrested for “marijuana-related violations,” primarily in states where the plant remains illegal, according to the FBI.

Evidence’s head grower, Kyle Walton, went to jail several times in his youth for possession of cannabis.

“It was definitely a hiccup in getting jobs and having to deal with probation officers,” Walton said. “Kind of just put into perspective how easy it is to go to jail for something that I think is normal.”

Recreational cannabis is legal in 18 states, and the market is projected to reach $50 billion by the end of 2026, according to a 2017 study. Only 4.3 percent of legal cannabis business owners are Black.

Some states and local governments are trying to make it easier for people affected by the war on drugs to get involved in the legal market. Cities like Los Angeles and Oakland, California, and a few states, like Illinois and New York, are setting aside licenses for social equity applicants, offering loan assistance or other support to get their businesses off the ground.

Critics say some of the programs prioritize marginalized groups that did not bear the brunt of the war on drugs, such as veterans. But Dalton said the government is not solely responsible for rectifying the past and that cannabis companies should do what they can to help people from marginalized groups break into the business.

“I think every brand should hold some type of responsibility to participate in social equity,” he said. “The barrier of entry is really, really tough. Right? It can get technical filling out an application, finding a property that’s zoned correctly for cannabis.”

Green Thumb Industries, one of the largest cannabis companies in the U.S., bought a prison in Warwick, New York, last year and plans to invest $150 million to turn it into a cultivation facility. CEO Ben Kovler said he hopes Green Thumb will be among the first cannabis companies in the state to hire former inmates.

“I think what’s important is … where we take a place like this that used to lock people up for marijuana and now we’re going to employ them gainfully,” Kovler said.