While it may be tempting to celebrate the strides being made in cannabis, the dark side of the industry is the amount of people being shut out because of prior convictions. Those convictions are often cannabis-related, and having that on your record can prevent housing, employment, financing, and other opportunities. Even in states where decriminalization and recreational legalization pass, there are many barriers to record sealing or expungement.
For example, in California, prosecutors expected a lot of people to petition for expungement of their records, but the response was weak. The legal process for petitioning is cumbersome and expensive, making it inaccessible to the people who need it most. Having a drug conviction can affect every aspect of a person’s life; over 200,000 students lost financial aid eligibility, many professions that require state licensing is inaccessible, and other people lose out on volunteering or working in the school system because of a non-violent drug charge. More than 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, despite the many jobs being created because of cannabis.
One reason for this disparity is the lack of awareness around expanding expungement, record sealing and post-conviction relief resources. Education is vital in this situation and communicating these resources to the communities who need it most is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Furthermore, public defender offices are overwhelmed and understaffed, making it even more difficult to access free legal services.
Despite these challenges, over 3 dozen organizations in the cannabis space are joining forces to repair the infinite amount of damage caused by the War on Drugs. From September 21st-28th, National Expungement Week, led by Cage-Free Cannabis and Equity First, will offer city-specific events for record changes. In addition to record change (expungement, record-sealing, or record-reducing), the events will have opportunities for educational opportunities, voter registration, financial literacy, resume writing help, immigration support, career counseling, and more.
Margeaux Bruner, a member of the Michigan Democratic Party Cannabis Caucus Executive Board and the Chair of the Michigan Chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, is one of the organizers of National Expungement Week. She tells High Times that some of the most impactful offerings of these events (of which 40 are taking place across 30 cities) are the hope and relief that come with being connected to the correct resources.
“A gentleman called me about an event, and there is not one in his area. He was approximately an hour and a half away, a $19 bus ride from having his record cleared. We have been able to connect him to much needed resources. Sometimes, the barriers to freedom are low. It is important to stand in that gap.”
These barriers are becoming less difficult to clear with the help of organizations like Cage-Free, which paid $1,200 in record sealing fees. Additionally, 85% of Cage-Free’s consultants, freelancers, and on-site staff in 2018 were people of color. According to the Cage-Free Cannabis 2018 impact report – a comprehensive overview of the event results – 538 people began the process of expunging or sealing their records because of National Expungement Week. One of those people is Mauro Melgar, a recipient of legal relief during 2018 Los Angeles National Expungement Week Clinic, who was able to expunge his cannabis-related conviction during a National Expungement Week event.
“Ten years ago, I went to jail for the sale of marijuana which got me one year in Los Angeles county jail. For the past 10 years that made it hard to find employment,” Melgar says, pointing out that past convictions make it difficult to succeed and integrate back into society.
“The Expungement was a smooth process and not difficult at all. I was lucky to find out about National Expungement Week while scrolling down my Instagram. There, I saw Cage-Free Cannabis and Equity First Alliance posting about Expungement events taking place across different cities and states. I was curious, so I decided to attend to see if I could get my felony for sales of marijuana expunged.”
Melgar tells High Times that having his record expunged changed his life positively in so many ways: he now wants to pursue getting his diploma and entering the cannabis industry professionally. He says that this experience motivated him to become involved in raising awareness of the damage caused by the War on Drugs. He wants to raise awareness for social equity programs and help find funding for those projects and hopes to make inclusivity and diversity a part of the cannabis industry one day.
Since National Expungement Week began in 2018, public acceptance has been overwhelming says Bruner, with momentum picking up among celebrities. Seth Rogan recently gave his support with a short video PSA. Bruner says that while the organizers are happy to see the issue gaining momentum, there are graver impacts to such notoriety.
“There is definitely an excitement and undeniable energy. We are grateful to see this issue elevated. There is also a gravity. The toll of living ‘branded’ in society has long reaching effects.”
As with anything associated with the War on Drugs (or any societal issue, really) people of color are more negatively affected. Mandatory sentences, a practice implemented widely in the ‘80s and ‘90s, disproportionately targeting Black and Latinx people, with research showing that Black people were twice as likely to be given such a punishment by prosecution. In 2011, out of those who received mandatory sentences, 38% were Latinx, and 31% were Black.
Repairing this damage through reparative justice efforts is time and labor intensive, and it requires the help of many different experts and community members. Understanding the nuances of your local law, finding volunteers in the social and health fields, sourcing funding for fees and other costs, and finding a free place to host are only some of the concerns you have if you host a National Expungement Week event.
Outside of hosting an event, Bruner says that companies and individuals can support the project by being aware of the laws, and understanding the hardships caused by these laws.
“Then, beyond that, municipal, county, state, and federal laws are intertwined. Any group calling for prosecutor accountability is a good place to start,” says Bruner, “There are myriad laws and statutes banning employment, housing and education [for those with convictions]. That feeds into food instability, housing security, poor healthcare outcomes, and mental illness.”
Bruner says that understanding the connectivity between the many ways drug convictions affect not just an individual but a community is important. Because of this, events are focused on being as accessible as possible, with some locations even offering childcare. National Expungement Week accepts volunteers and sponsorships all year long, and supports efforts that extend beyond the given week.
After this monumental week, Bruner says that companies can support the spirit of the project by leading with compassion, and by being the change you want to see in the world.