For Donte Westmoreland, April 20 is indeed a day to celebrate cannabis culture and the “love of the plant.”
But he never stops thinking about the people who are still incarcerated nationwide for the plant, like he was. And he hopes others remember them on 4/20 as well.
“I want them to realize that we’re still fighting for those people that are locked up,” said Westmoreland, who goes by the name Donte West and who served five years in prison in Kansas for marijuana-related charges.
Since Westmoreland was exonerated in 2021 for allegedly selling a pound of marijuana in Kansas, he’s been part of cannabis-justice efforts in Kansas City where he lives now and nationwide.
To help Westmoreland remember those cannabis prisoners, the Kansas City mayor and city council are recognizing April 20 as 4/20 Donte West Cannabis Justice Day.
They will present the proclamation to Westmoreland at a ceremony at City Hall on Thursday afternoon.
“Donte has focused on re-entry due to the majority of released prisoners’ limited employment, especially in the cannabis community because of parole and probation,” the proclamation states.
“While giving back to his community, Donte has seen success in securing the release of cannabis prisoners in the region through executive clemency.”
At 23, Westmoreland was living in California and serving as the caretaker for his grandmother and two younger brothers. He decided to visit a college in Kansas with friends in 2016, and so many things went wrong. He got swept up in a raid of a drug house he didn’t have anything to do with and faced four felony charges.
When he went to fight his charges, his public defender was unprepared because he was sick with the flu and wasn’t able to get the case continued.
He was sentenced to seven years and 8 months on May 22, 2017 for two charges: conspiracy to distribute marijuana and possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
While in prison in Kansas, he joined a group that would go to the library and study the law. He wrote to all 125 state representatives and 40 senators in Kansas about his case.
Former Kansas State Rep. Willie Dove visited Westmoreland in prison.
“He’s like, ‘Man, we’re out here passing laws and I didn’t know people were serving this much amount of time for marijuana in the state of Kansas,’” Westmoreland recalls.
Dove and other Kansas legislators wrote letters to the governor asking for clemency or a sentence reduction. Westmoreland also filed a motion that started the wheels turning in court and that led to his exoneration in 2021.
Now he leads the community outreach efforts for Illicit Gardens, a cannabis business with a criminal justice advocacy focus.
He also works with the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit that supports impacted by a cannabis conviction and its consequences through clemency, compassionate release, expungement and reform.
In that work, he says he gained support from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Barry Grissom, a former U.S. Attorney in Kansas on identifying people that are incarcerated for cannabis charges.
In December, the Missouri Department of Corrections estimated about 27 people incarcerated in state prisons would be eligible for expungements and relief under the state’s new law to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
However, Westmoreland said that might not include people who were also charged with “conspiracy to distribute” like him.
“If you look deeper into the prison records, there’s many different types of charges that deal with cannabis,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland never thought that his calling would be a “voice for the voiceless.”
“Most of my mind is consumed with just finding new cases, finding new stories, helping them to get out and them being an inspiration to the community,” Westmoreland said. “So that’s the key for me, it’s really making that day about those prisoners.”
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