I know the horrors of the failed War on Drugs,” Terrence Stevens said heavily. Convicted in 1992 under New York’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws, he was incarcerated for 10 years. It would have been a harsh sentence in any circumstances, but his health condition made it far worse.
“I was virtually paralyzed from the neck down, suffering from muscular dystrophy,” he explained. “Throughout my time, I was a total care patient. For 10 years I had to be dressed, undressed, bathed, receive assistance with feeding, wheelchair movement—I had to be turned from side to side every two hours at night to ease respiratory complications.”
None of this held Stevens back after his release in 2001. Back in his hometown of New York City, he quickly found himself in the midst of a movement to end the state’s drug war, playing his part in repealing the very laws that led to his sentence. Now, he’s running a marijuana edibles company—selling to the adult-use market, but with a focus on supplying people like himself with disabilities. And rather than keeping the profits, the company is redistributing them to Black and Brown communities like his own.
“I was incarcerated on a 15-to-life sentence for a low-level, nonviolent drug offense, with people who commit murder and rape receiving less time.”
The Rockefeller laws, passed in 1973 by New York Governor (and future vice president) Nelson Rockefeller (R), imposed lengthy mandatory-minimum prison sentences for a range of felony drug charges. In the worst sense, these laws were innovative—advancing the kind of severe punishments that many other states later adopted. President Nixon may have declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, but it was lawmakers like Rockefeller, working in state houses around the country, who gave the drug war the muscle to lock people away for years or decades. Even today, far more people are incarcerated for drugs in the 50 different state prison systems than in the federal system.
For decades, as VICE describes, a coalition of New York community activists demanded an end to the Rockefeller laws. Finally in 2009, the state legislature and Governor David Paterson (D) reached an agreement to repeal much of the framework behind them—ending mandatory minimums for possession, use and low-level sales charges. Analyzing outcomes of these reforms in 2015, the Vera Institute for Justice concluded that they substantially reduced racial disparities in sentencing, among other impacts.
In 2021, New York took a further step toward undoing the damage by legalizing marijuana. Stevens is now transitioning from community advocate to entrepreneur as he launches his own cannabis brand. Frustrated with New York’s slow rollout, he’s focusing first on selling in Massachusetts, another legal-cannabis state. His company involves Khaliah Ali, daughter of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, and Jason Flom, a music industry executive responsible for breaking the likes of Katy Perry, as advisers.
Despite this success, Terrence Stevens is not about to forget how he reached this point. I had the chance to ask him about his life story: surviving prison despite woefully inadequate health care, transitioning back to society, becoming an advocate against the Rockefeller laws, and what he’s doing now. As he sometimes fought for breath during our conversation, the courage and determination that have enabled him to achieve so much, after all he’s endured, shone through. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexander Lekhtman: Did you have muscular dystrophy before you went to prison?
Terrence Stevens: Yes, I was diagnosed at 14. This condition is a chemical breakdown in signals between the spinal area and brain, where the muscles are not functioning. It gets worse with time—as a result I am a total care patient. It’s a devastating disease.
I was in my late 20s when I was sentenced. I was incarcerated on a 15-to-life sentence for a low-level, nonviolent drug offense, with people who commit murder and rape receiving less time than me.
Which prisons did you do time in?
I started out at Wende. From there I went to Elmira, then I was transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility. It had a special unit for wheelchair people, because I needed such intensive care. I spent the majority of my time there because it was closer to NYC and my family.
How was the care you got at Greenhaven?
It was substandard and inadequate in the beginning. Prisons weren’t built to house people in my condition. The bathroom doorways were too small for my wheelchair, the water fountain was too high, the prison yard was riddled with potholes and uneven pavement.
They changed many conditions in the prison but it took a lot of advocating. For nine years I was being treated by doctors who had no specialty in my disease process, before they finally took me to get treated by a muscular dystrophy specialist. As a result my condition got worse—my spine kinda curves to the left, I have a compressed lung and I have severe scholiosis which causes breathing complications.
“I fought to get out of prison, and then once out, I jumped into another fight.”
How did you get out?
The nightmare was over when I received executive clemency in 2001 thanks to [the advocacy of] my mom, and the late Judge Jerome Marks—he was a great advocate for ending for these laws.
I think the prison gave me $35 when I was released. But I was fortunate enough to have a unique circle of supporters and donors who helped me navigate myself back into mainstream society.
How did you become involving in drug policy reform advocacy? And what was happening at that time?
It was amazing coming out and landing right at the forefront of the Rockefeller drug-law movement. I fought to get out of prison, and then once out, I jumped into another fight.
People were putting pressure on the governor and legislators to reform the Rockefeller drug laws. People were upstate, just rotting away being warehoused in these maximum-security state prisons when they probably could benefit from treatment more.
I met up with organizations like Drug Policy Alliance and Mothers of the Disappeared, and I began organizing. I devoted a large part of my life to advocating for drug law reform, and trying to prevent other individuals, whether disabled or able-bodied, from getting caught up in these laws.
I spoke at events, press conferences. I went around the schools, participated in some documentaries. We staged rallies to convince the right people with the power to change drug laws.
We succeeded in reforming the laws and giving judges a bit more discretion than they did when their hands were tied. Because of that, we brought thousands of people home in New York state.
What do you think changed in public opinion about drugs during this time?
I think society started realizing the majority of people held under these laws were [just people who use drugs, often people with substance use disorder]. They use and get caught with drugs, and they could benefit by going into treatment as opposed to incarceration—and even taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck this way. People were seeing addiction and drug use as more a public health matter.
What was your next step after that?
I founded a nonprofit, In Arms Reach. It catered to the needs of children and youth who are impacted by incarceration. We provided them tutoring and mentoring. They benefited from after-school programs, getting help with their homework, and having positive role models to help them navigate through life.
What did you teach them, and what did you learn from them?
I think children suffer from being away from their parents. There’s a lot of stigma, isolation, insecurity, and low self-esteem. Just being there to help them through those life challenges was a good experience for me.
I think it was inspiring for the kids to see someone in my physical condition have an impact in the community like I have, to supervise and take a leadership role in this program.
“It’s time to work on empowering individuals who suffered from the drug war and do more to give back.”
How did you go from working with kids to starting a cannabis company?
I wasn’t really a smoker because I don’t like the way the flower changes my mood swings. But I was doing some research one day and I heard Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, and he found relief through cannabis. I said, I want to try this and see if it would help my MD.
I’m glad I did because it proved to be very helpful for my anxiety, muscle stiffness, and my pain and suffering. It puts me at ease. I tried the edibles and at first it was too strong. So we had to work on finding the right blend that would treat my condition and prevent mood swings.
Initially I was somewhat fearful of trying cannabis because it changes my mood, but people really need to try it because I immediately learned there are so many benefits from it. From supporting cancer to alleviating anxiety, relaxing your muscles. It helps me sleep now.
You now run your own company called Ironsdyz, with an edible gummies product. Your motto is “Good Weed, Good Deed.” The website states you’re “committed to addressing this unintended imbalance of the current cannabis ecosystem,” and that the company “recycles ALL PROFITS from cannabis sales back to individuals and communities harmed by the drug war.” Can you explain?
I never imagined that the majority of all real cannabis profits are going to people whose skin does not look like mine. You have a tiny percentage of profits that are owned by people of color. Yet Black and Hispanics make up a disproportionate total of the prison population and arrests, so there’s a real disservice there. Then you have a situation where the number of physically challenged people in leadership roles in cannabis is at an all-time low, with respect to colored folks even lower. It’s time to work on empowering individuals who suffered from the drug war and do more to give back.
There’s a lot of money being made but not much being given. We are making sure people who are harmed by the drug wars are getting some benefits from legalization of cannabis. We hope that by launching this brand, we can’t necessarily change a life but at least [can] lighten the load.
What’s key about the model is simply all profits will go to those who were left behind. We take out funding for salaries and operating expenses and what we need to push the company forward. Anything outside that goes out the door.
We connected with a cannabis company in Massachusetts called Freshly Baked. It’s a small company but they have a big heart. The founders are a husband-and-wife team, disabled veterans, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; they took us under their wing by not charging us for manufacturing the cannabis.
At this point, 24 states and Washington, DC, have legalized adult-use cannabis. We’re seeing more states—on paper—commit to “social equity” in awarding licenses and training support to small business owners who were targeted by prohibition. But it’s often an empty promise: As Fortune estimated in 2022, less than 2 percent of marijuana businesses nationwide were Black-owned. What are your thoughts on improving this?
There’s a major problem with “social equity.” You have cannabis officials giving out these licenses but they really are providing no support for individuals. It’s one thing to get the license but another to keep your business running. A lot of the bigger multi-state operators are coming in, taking control and wiping the small guys out. A lot of our efforts will be on creating policy where social equity can be honored.
I would like to sponsor some legislation where cannabis businesses are mandated to stock at least 10 percent of their products from social equity producers.
Where does the money you give away go to?
It’s the small things that have the biggest impact. The money goes to people’s kitchen cabinets, or for groceries. I knock on doors and give money directly away. Our team consists of just two people. We’re not going to do anything conventional—we will not fund a large nonprofit.
First we’re doing small gifts, capped at $500. We’re doing a random act of kindness to let someone go out and buy a Thanksgiving dinner, or something for their self, no strings attached. Their money, whatever they want to do with it. The only string we attach is, please play it forward. Do something kind for someone else and let us know.
Mothers of the Disappeared was one of the first groups that hit the pavement when we were fighting the Rockefeller drug laws. We will be reaching out to some of those disappeared and forgotten victims and extending some help to them. And we will support small, grassroots organizations on the ground in communities doing real work.
People can contact us at info[@]ironsydz.com to ask for help.
Photograph of Terrence Stevens (center) with friends and colleagues, courtesy of Stevens
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.