Wershe launching own brand of cannabis products with social justice focus

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Richard Wershe Jr. is getting into the cannabis industry, and plans to use his new business endeavor to push social justice.

Wershe, a former FBI and Detroit police informant known as "White Boy Rick," famously served more than three decades behind bars for a non-violent drug offense after being convicted in 1988 in Wayne County Circuit Court. Now 52, Wershe is believed to have served the longest prison sentence beginning as a juvenile for a non-violent drug offense. He was released from prison last year after serving 32 years and seven months.

Rick Wershe smells marijuana in the flower room at Pleasantrees in Harrison Township on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Wershe is partnering with the company and introducing his own brand of products.

Now Wershe is partnering with Pleasantrees cannabis company and is launching his own brand of products called "The 8th," a reference to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment of criminal defendants. 

Wershe's cannabis brand, which includes cannabis plants, T-shirts, concentrates and other products, is expected to launch this fall. The black T-shirts will feature two broken handcuffs and the words "White Boy Rick" on the front.

This comes as Eminem is slated to portray Wershe in an upcoming Starz television series by rapper 50 Cent. Wershe's life also has been the focus of books, films and a Hollywood film starring Matthew McConaughey.

From left, Evan Williams, Jerome Crawford, director of legal operations and social equity for cannabis company Pleasantrees, and Rick Wershe in the dry room of the company's facility in Harrison Township on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

Wershe says he hopes to raise awareness about the harshness of sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and use a substantial portion of his proceeds to help people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses.

"It's about being over-punished," Wershe said. "How is it that a non-violent offender is punished more severely than a violent offender? That's not equal justice under the law."

He said he chose to partner with Pleasantrees because he likes the company's social justice and social equity program. The company offers jobs to those recently released from prison who because they were wrongfully convicted or incarcerated under excessive sentences. 

Rick Wershe aka "White Boy Rick" in the green room at Pleasantrees in Harrison Township on Wednesday, September 1, 2021 as he is getting into the cannabis business.

"Mr. Wershe was recently released from prison after serving over thirty-two years for non-violent drug offenses allegedly committed while he was a minor. As such, his life story, which has been the subject of several recent films and documentaries, is a prime example of the unduly harsh penalties levied against victims of the decades-long “War on Drugs” which was started by the Nixon Administration and further escalated in the Reagan Era," said Pleasantrees company officials in a statement announcing the partnership.

Attorney Jerome Crawford, Pleasantrees’ director of legal operations and social equity, said Wershe is the "poster child" of excessive as well as cruel and unusual punishment. 

"He is a walking example of cruel and unusual punishment where a minor is sent to prison for three decades of his life behind bars for a non-violent drug crime," said Crawford. "He can give voice to the voiceless. Having him on our team is really a representation of our social equity plan."

One of the people Wershe hopes to help is Rudi Gammo, 42, who was sentenced in 2018 in Oakland County to five and a half years in prison. He owned a medical marijuana dispensary in Detroit, but was charged for letting patients grow marijuana in homes he owned in Oakland County.

Rick Wershe in the nursery room at Pleasantrees in Harrison Township on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Wershe is partnering with the company and introducing his own brand of products.

Wershe attended a rally at the Oakland County Circuit Court on Wednesday to urge a judge to release Gammo.

"This is what we do," Wershe said about his efforts to help Gammo. "This is what this brand is all about."

Gammo's attorney, Barton Morris Jr., said for a number of years unlicensed and unregulated "gray market" products were grown by caregivers and sold by hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan. Morris added that prior to 2018, when state voters approved an initiative for recreational adult use of marijuana, "this was the only way to operate, and was permitted by most municipalities."

"Rudi was convicted of something that became legal a few short months later when the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (MRTMA) became law in November 2018. Even though the 'Clean Slate' bill was signed into law this past fall; the law that permits thousands of Michiganders to expunge many misdemeanor and felony marijuana offenses, he still remains behind bars," Morris, principal attorney and founder of the Cannabis Legal Group, said in a statement.

Rick Wershe in the flower room at Pleasantrees in Harrison Township on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Wershe is partnering with the company and introducing his own brand of products.

Morris said Gammo, who is at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, is one of the "most prominent" examples of the need for restorative criminal justice in Michigan. 

Recreational cannabis use was legalized in Michigan in 2018. Under the law, individuals over the age of 21 can possess 2½ ounces of cannabis. Medical marijuana became legal in the state in 2008.

Harrison Township-based Pleasantrees, which operates in Michigan and Massachusetts, said it is among Michigan’s largest wholesalers of medical and recreational cannabis. The company has three recreational cannabis retail establishments in Hamtramck, East Lansing and Denton Township in Roscommon County.

Pleasantrees also has two cultivation facilities in Harrison Township. The company has launched its first retail location in Easthampton, Massachusetts, and is seeking to expand to Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Wershe said in a lawsuit he filed in July against the city of Detroit, Detroit police officers and FBI agents that he was first approached by FBI agents when he was 14. He regularly met with FBI agents and Detroit police officers to give information on Detroit's burgeoning drug gangs before he was sentenced at 17 to life behind bars without parole for possession to deliver more than 650 grams of a controlled substance.

Wershe's sentence was later amended to life with the possibility of parole, and in 2017 the Michigan Parole Board unanimously granted Wershe parole. Documents obtained by The Detroit News after Wershe's parole was granted showed that his remorse and good behavior played a role in the board's decision.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com