SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Utah-based music producer Weldon Angelos was on his way to becoming a rising star in the hip-hop industry.
By the time he was 23, he had already worked with titans of rap such as Snoop Dogg and Nas, as well as former associates of Tupac Shakur. In the process of getting ready to stabilize himself with a lucrative contract with a major recording studio, he was arrested after selling $300 of marijuana to an undercover police informant on three separate occasions in 2003.
It was believed by the jury at his trial that Angelos was carrying a firearm during the transactions, subjecting him to a different section of the federal code which called for a mandatory sentence for the music maker, who had no prior criminal record, of 55 years. He could have faced more than 105 years behind bars if all the stacking charges had stuck.
The punishment seemed so glaringly unfair and unfitting to the crime that even the judge who sentenced Angelos, Paul Cassell, offered an unprecedented suggestion to him as he completed the trial.
“He actually called on the president for a pardon, as he was sentencing me,” Angelos recalls to ABC4.com. “He called on [George W.] Bush, the president who appointed him to commute my sentence because he had no choice but to impose it and he certainly did not want to impose a 55-year sentence.”
Thirteen years later, Angelos emerged from prison after a prolonged effort that involved a group of influential American voices from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Believe it or not, folks like Utah Senator Mike Lee, former Senator Orrin Hatch, Cassell, the judge in the case, as well as entertainers like Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys, all agreed on one thing: Angelos did not deserve to lose more than five decades of his life due to a first-time marijuana offense.
“When I got released in 2016, that was like the best day of my life and then the second-best day of my life was getting fully pardoned by President Trump last December,” Angelos says. “It not only, you know it was like free but now I got my rights back and I’ve been sort of vindicated.”
Angelos knows he was lucky, most people trapped in prison due to mandatory sentences related to marijuana don’t have a deep pool of bipartisan politicians and celebrities pulling for their release. Since his departure from the big house, he has been working as a leading advocate for criminal justice reform for a system he sees as viciously unfair.
“I knew that I had to be that voice for the people that I left behind and so that’s what I’m doing,” he says.
Angelos’ work with The Weldon Project and Mission Green has taken him to great highs. Not long after being behind bars in prison, he was invited to the White House to speak about criminal justice reform, something he calls probably the most interesting thing that’s happened to him since his release.
His latest splash came earlier this week, in a letter sent to the White House, asking for clemency and a pardon “to all persons subject to federal criminal or civil enforcement on the basis of non-violent marijuana offenses.” The two-page letter was signed not only by Angelos by 150-plus artists, athletes, producers, lawmakers, law-enforcement officials, politicians, and academics that took up an additional 14 pages.
Notable signatories included hip hop superstars Drake, 2 Chainz, Ty Dolla $ign, athletes Deion Sanders and John Wall, and former presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
Angelos hopes that the letter and its star-powered influence can be a reminder to the President to follow through on one of his platforms related to marijuana offenses.
“You know, Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail, that he would fix this, that people shouldn’t be locked up for cannabis, people shouldn’t have a felony conviction for it,” he says with conviction. “Even though he doesn’t support recreational marijuana, he certainly supports ending incarceration and felony convictions for it and so we’re gonna hold him to it.”
The long game for Angelos is to see the criminal justice system reformed for folks like him. He’s also back in the lab, producing music for Ty Dolla $ign, as well as Tori Lanez and Russ, who is set to appear at The Great Saltair on Oct. 2.
His other plan is to launch his own cannabis company, as several of his supporters, such as Drake and Russ, have already done. It would be a great way to stick it to a system that once threw the book at him, he says.
“I feel like if anyone should be making money on cannabis it’s people who have suffered the consequences of cannabis prohibition like myself,” he explains. “I would love nothing more than to be able to have my own brand especially having it here in Utah, where everything happened, and being able to do it legally would be pretty amazing.”