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Once shut out of pot, marijuana laws block ex-offenders from booming business

Updated: Sep 1, 2019


A customer shops for marijuana at the Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas. Nevada's governor has signed a law Wednesday, June 5, 2019, allowing the state to test out a voluntary, marijuana banking system for three years. (John Locher/AP)

In the same week the Trump administration warned that today's cannabis "ain't your mother's marijuana," New York state officially decriminalized the drug, downgrading the criminal penalty for unlawful possession from a misdemeanor to a fine. Two-thirds of U.S. states have now reduced restrictions on marijuana since California legalized its medicinal use in 1996. According to The New York Times, nearly 160,000 New York state residents with low-level weed convictions will also have their records expunged.


"We don't feel very comfortable about the opening up of markets and economic development [while] watching people sit in prison,"

"By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in a statement after signing the legislation.


As more states dial back medicinal and recreational marijuana laws, stakeholders in the cannabis industry are looking to these ex-offenders to boost their bottom line, placing growers and distributors at the forefront of social equity and criminal justice reform.


Derek Peterson is the CEO of Terra Tech, a publicly traded cannabis company that operates in California and Nevada. The company supports social equity programs that allow companies to hire ex-offenders and is working with lobbyists to insert criminal justice-reform language into legislation in New Jersey.


"We don't feel very comfortable about the opening up of markets and economic development [while] watching people sit in prison," he told Forbes. "There needs to be allowances in new legislation that allows for people who have been incarcerated for drug crimes to [enter] this industry."


A push by industry members toward ex-offender initiatives isn't solely a moral or ethical decision. It can be profitable. According to New Frontier Data, the size of the legal cannabis market could grow to $25 billion by 2025, potentially creating more than 300,000 new jobs by 2020.


Projects like Green Cure Wellness and Southeast Provisioning business park, currently under construction in Detroit, provide legal help to would-be employees who need assistance expunging their records. In exchange, eight companies the park will soon house have a leg up on recruits uniquely skilled in cannabis.


"[Cannabis] is here. And if it's here, let's regulate it, make it a benefit and an asset for our communities," owner Maurice Morton told local WXYZ. "There are people here who want to invest in Detroit."


Once completed, the cannabis park will feature cultivation and processing businesses, a provisioning center and a Cannabis Training Program for local residents with prior marijuana convictions to learn needed skills. According to the Michigan State Police, one out of every 12 people arrested in 2017 was charged with a marijuana-related offense. Black Detroit residents between the ages of 18 and 24 had arrest rates 10 times higher than white ones despite similar rates of usage.


Programs like Morton's aim to repair racial inequities perpetuated by a decades-long War on Drugs and Clinton-era drug policies that saw mostly black and Latino men face long-term prison sentences for minor marijuana possession.

Marijuana legalization by state. (DISA)

Last year, Massachusetts became the first state to directly address the lingering impact of the War of Drugs through its marijuana legislation. The state's social equity program is aimed at helping the communities aggressive sentencing policies affected most. Under the program, non-violent offenders are allowed to work in the pot industry and qualify for training and fundraising capital. Their children and spouses can also apply.


“My goal is that every legalization state from here forward should include an equity program,” Shaleen Title, commissioner for Massachusetts' Cannabis Control Commission, told The Guardian at the time.


Still, many states restrict access to occupational licenses for those with prior marijuana and other drug related offenses. And laws that bar drug offenders from entering the cannabis industry can shut out individuals with marijuana-related convictions, who are disproportionately black and Latino.


According to the Reason Foundation, a progressive public policy research organization, of all states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, California and Washington are the only two that don't prevent people with criminal convictions from even being employed in marijuana establishments. Most states only have some limited exemptions for past marijuana crimes built into the law.


Reform activists say these restrictions not only block ex-offenders from a booming multi-billion dollar industry, but that trying to navigate the licensing and legal sale process can send would-be reformers back into the criminal justice system. Reason notes that states with the most occupational licensing burdens, including prohibitions on ex-prisoners receiving licenses, saw an increase in three-year new crime recidivism of 9.4% between 1997 and 2007.


Therefore, advocates charge any new state legislation must address must provide an entryway for former offenders in the industry and profits redistributed within communities destroyed.


“I want to help build opportunities for other people of color,” Morton said in a press release at the cannabis park's groundbreaking. "As a former prosecutor, many people have been surprised by my investment in the cannabis industry, but I refuse to sit back and watch as [others] build wealth and African Americans are left out,” he said.


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