Kryst joins a growing number of pageant queens who are willing to talk about political issues — including weed — both on and off the pageant stage.
The complex litigation attorney has worked pro bono with clients who have served excessive time for low-level drug offenses.
One such client was Alfred Rivera, who originally received a mandatory life sentence without parole for a low-level federal drug crime.
When it comes to pageant queens, the cliché goes that they only support the most noncontroversial of social issues — like world peace.
But that infamous gag from Sandra Bullock's 2000 hit "Miss Congeniality" would be out of place today, where the likes of contestants for Miss Universe and Miss USA are discussing major political issues on and off the pageant stage.
One such issue is marijuana, which current Miss USA Cheslie Kryst discussed during a recent visit to the Insider office.
"I think marijuana should be legalized," she said. "I think there are a lot of states that are turning that way. Colorado obviously is big, but there are many states that are decriminalizing it and moving towards legalization."
Kryst, a complex litigation attorney, saw firsthand how the criminalization of marijuana has altered the lives of many Americans after working pro bono with clients who have served excessive time for low-level drug offenses.
One such client was Alfred Rivera, who originally received a mandatory life sentence without parole for a low-level federal drug crime
Rivera was found guilty of trafficking crack cocaine in 2001. Because of his prior drug convictions — possession of marijuana in 1992, when he was 21, and possession of cocaine in 1994, when he was 23 — he was sentenced to life in prison. The life sentence came just two years after Rivera was exonerated and taken off death row after serving 22 months for a murder conviction after his defense argued that he had been framed.
Kryst served as Rivera's local counsel, working with Texas-based attorney Brittany K. Barnett and the Buried Alive Project, which Barnett co-founded to help those who had received life without parole sentences under US federal drug laws.
"Rivera was set to die in prison, to never breathe air as a free man again," Barnett told Insider. "His sentence was morally and economically unjustifiable. After being buried alive for 18 years, Alfred Rivera walked free in July 2019."
Kryst noted how Rivera was sentenced to more time in prison than Brock Turner, the Stanford student who was convicted of raping a woman but only given 6 months in jail
Turner was released three months early.
"We're talking about a man who has raped a woman," Kryst said, speaking of Turner. "It just doesn't make sense to me, especially when you look at the low amount of resources that we have for policing in the United States. Every time I hear about the backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits across the nation that haven't been tested because we don't have time or money or resources but, on the other hand, we're throwing people in prison for dealing marijuana."
"It blows my mind and it makes me very angry, especially as an attorney who has worked on behalf of these people," she added.
Kryst said the criminalization of marijuana has also created a cycle in which people who have been convicted of low-level drug crimes can't reenter the job market
"I think there are many people who have just been pushed out of society," she continued. "Now people won't hire them and so they don't have a job and now they have to do something, and maybe they turn to dealing marijuana because there's nothing else they can do."
"I just think there are so many other solutions that we have beside throwing people in jail for these low-level drug offenses," she went on. "I think we are smart enough as a nation to figure out those solutions."
Kryst believes there have been some positive changes in recent years as America has shifted from the War on Drugs that began in the 1970s to the candid conversations about addiction and rehabilitation that are occurring more frequently in society today.
"I think a lot of people end up turning to illegal drugs or dealing or using because they are themselves drug addicts and really need help," she said. "I think it's good that nowadays, especially with the opioid crisis, we're thinking of drug use more in a mental-health sense and less in a criminalization sense. I think that's very important."
The discourse around marijuana on the pageant stage also seems to be changing. In 2015, there was speculation that Miss Australia didn't make the top three of the Miss Universe pageant after revealing she supported the legalization of marijuana in her country.
But three years later, Miss Philippines Catriona Gray said she supported the use of medical marijuana during the Miss Universe 2018 pageant. She went on to win the crown.
And marijuana will be represented on the Miss Universe stage yet again this year. Miss Canada Alyssa Boston told Vice that cannabis will make an appearance in her introduction video and that there will also be a "surprise on the final show of something to do with cannabis."
"It's a drug, how could a beauty queen speak about a drug? Those two things just don't work together," she said. "I think that's the biggest point, is to have somebody who's not in the industry talk about it and it could really open the eyes of a whole different group of people."
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