Industry News & Updates

Can People with Previous Convictions Work in Legal Cannabis?

By Harris Wheless
Bill Oxford

While cannabis legalization efforts in the U.S. seem to be gaining steam, state laws that embrace the industry may not be fully reckoning with the history of drug and criminal justice policies associated with the plant. Some states passed legislation that legalized cannabis, but didn’t decriminalize it, and vice versa. Although the two issues are often treated separately, they are deeply rooted in the same soil.

Eleven states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and some of their citizens are already reaping the growing industry’s economic benefits. Although 23 states have now decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, those with felony drug convictions often still have to live with charges on their records. There are only a small handful of states who are taking measured steps towards expunging past convictions. And in most states, if you’re a convicted felon, you can’t obtain a cannabis business license or gain employment in the industry.

The policies regarding these issues vary by state, and sometimes even by city, but there is some slow momentum building to introduce restorative measures for people affected by past drug laws. So, here’s a little background info to get you up to speed on some recent developments.

First, why are these laws in place?

The 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp on a federal level, also introduced a provision that bans people with felony drug convictions from being involved in the industry for a decade following their convictions. Because of this, the early movers in the legal cannabis boom and the ones who are profiting most from it are those who are economically advantaged with no criminal record.

Some with convictions from decades ago are eligible to enter the industry, but some states have stricter eligibility requirements than others. Many states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use bar some felons from entering the industry. To name a few: Nevada prohibits anyone with a drug-related conviction from working in cannabis; Colorado requires your conviction to be over 10 years ago to obtain eligibility; and Alaska bars all those with convictions in the last five years.

However, some states are taking measures to amend these policies and introduce legislation that might offer opportunities for those with previous convictions.

California leads the charge

The first states to legalize marijuana for recreational adult use were Colorado and Washington in 2012. While California legalized after that, it has perhaps made the largest effort by any state to decriminalize cannabis. In 2016, a bill was passed in California that legalized the use of recreational marijuana and eliminated several cannabis-related convictions. However, no mechanism to reduce or erase prior convictions was provided.

Then, in October of 2018, the California Cannabis Equity Act was signed into law, which required the state to look at eligible felony cases, determine whether they could be expunged or reduced to a misdemeanor, and move forward with that process. The state estimated that almost 200,000 cases would be eligible for erasure or reduction. The state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control is still reviewing and revising the grant program guidelines, but results seem on the horizon.

Seattle gets the job done, the state follows

In April of 2018, the city of Seattle filed a motion with Seattle Municipal court to dismiss all cannabis possession convictions of people who were prosecuted by the city from 1997 to 2010.

When the motion was approved by the court in September of that year, 542 people will have their charges erased. Seattle’s not the only city taking big strides in marijuana decriminalization. San Francisco, Denver, and New York are also working to clear thousands of drug-related convictions.

When Seattle courts approved the motion, marijuana had yet to be decriminalized in the state of Washington. In January of 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced the creation of a Marijuana Justice Initiative to pardon thousands of state citizens with cannabis convictions. But the initiative had strict eligibility requirements, and one month after it began only 13 people had been pardoned. In May, however, Inslee signed a new law, to go into effect at the end of July, that will require judges to vacate marijuana charges and likely speed up the process of decriminalization in the state.

What’s next?

As more states legalize recreational cannabis, we may start to see increased decriminalization efforts and more opportunities for disadvantaged people to enter the industry. As was the case in Washington, this may take multiple acts of legislation before a state’s eligibility requirements can be met by a significant number of those affected.

For many, a prior drug conviction is a major barrier to housing and employment, not just inside the cannabis industry. But as the industry continues to boom, states have the opportunity to reinvigorate the lives of those who have been affected by harsh drug laws. With continued legislation, criminalization of marijuana could one day be a thing of the past.

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