By Skip Shuda
The war on drugs has loaded our prisons and streets with people branded by a drug conviction. Once released, these returning citizens face challenges caused by stigma and a lack of opportunity.
The new PA Medical Marijuana program, Act 16, creates yet another area that will be denied to returning citizens.
Section 614 of Act 16 reads:
The following individuals may not hold volunteer positions or positions with remuneration in or be affiliated with a medical marijuana organization, including a clinical registrant…, in any way if the individual has been convicted of a criminal offense related to the sale or possession of illegal drugs, narcotics or controlled substances
Between 1996 and 2011, there were 12.2 Million marijuana arrests across the US. That translates into millions of American citizens who were branded with a conviction. Once convicted, it is harder to get a job and tougher to “fit in”.
Our stigma-branding is evident in our language… “ex-con”, “felon” and “ex-offenders” are just some of the painful, hot irons that we impress on the soul of those who were imprisoned.
The War on Drugs has done untold damage to the fabric of our society and it needs to stop.
This section from Pennsylvania’s Act 16 slams the door shut on the very people who have been most adversely affected by the War on Drugs. It continues the war on drugs by introducing these exclusions into the law.
It’s no wonder that the PA legislators included this language because any states that have passed medical marijuana laws have similar statutes. Many conservatives in the PA legislature fought hard to prevent a medical marijuana law from passing. As a result, the PA law is pock-marked with deficiencies like the lack of flower as a format for ingestion, the limited number of dispensary permits and this limit against former “convicts” from participating in the industry.
We can’t deem someone untrustworthy just because they went to prison. Many people have been unjustly arrested and convicted – especially in our black and brown communities. The prohibition against marijuana will surely be judged in the future as a set of laws that were born out of racism and bigotry. Prohibition prevents millions from access to a plant that promotes wellness and healing. We’re choosing not to trust people who stood up to this unjust prohibition.
Furthermore, even those who have been justly convicted often are committed to changing their lives for the better and deserve a second chance.
Is our system about correction? Or punishment and revenge?
We formally refer to our prisons as “correctional facilities” but there seems to be little in the way of “correction” going on. The implication is that our system is focused on rehabilitation, but we use language and create laws that seem to be more about punishment and vengeance.
In Norway, their criminal justice focus is on getting people out of the prison system as quickly as possible and re-integrated into society. Prisoners are given training on life skills, work skills and, while still incarcerated, are often provided with day jobs to help re-integrate them into society.
The recidivism rate is around 20% compared to the United States’ rate of 50-60%.
How can we change this?
In 2013, Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter took steps to start the healing process by signing an ordinance to change the language in all of Philadelphia’s legal code from “ex-offenders” to “returning citizens”. Language is a powerful contributor towards stigma – and modifying it can help change perceptions. We must start to use different language around cannabis as well (the plant is “cannabis”, not “pot”. It’s a “wellness product” not a “recreational drug”).
Philly Noteworthy: In 2011, Philadelphia passed a “Ban the Box” ordinance which prohibits employers from asking about prior arrests or convictions as part of the initial application process.
Language helps, but if we want our country to start the healing process around this failed “war on drugs”, then we need to also start providing career opportunities for people returning out of our criminal justice system.
In Los Angeles, HomeBoy Industries was started by Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle, affectionately known G-Dog by his team. HomeBoy Industries provides a landing place for people leaving prison. They run a bakery and a series of cafes (HomeGirl Café) that is staffed mostly by returning citizens. Rather than shunt returning citizens into the street and gang-related crime, HomeBoy Industries provides a real set of career options and choices.
G-Dog’s quote rings true: “The fastest way to stop a bullet is with a job”
Finding solid career options for Returning Citizens
Finding career options for people with a limited educational background is a big challenge across the US today.
The Cannabis industry is growing rapidly – with some segments growing over 200% a year. It provides a set of training options that don’t require advanced degrees but that can lead to a satisfying career with enormous growth and potential. Learning skills for growing cannabis or for dispensing cannabis opens the door to other careers in agriculture and retail operations.
The cannabis industry provides perfect career options for returning citizens. Yet we keep passing laws that prevent this from being a reality – and that continues to promote the war on drugs.
Once we start to change our language, we change our perception. When we change our perceptions, we can begin to change our laws.
Some places have already started to take action. The city of Oakland passed a law requiring that fully ½ of all cannabis licenses must be granted to returning citizens who were convicted of a marijuana related crime. While the logistics of implementing this law have come under fire, the redeeming spirit of the law’s intent, to remove stigma and restore the balance, is evident.
Skip Shuda is the CEO of Green Rush Advisors, a cannabis business training company that helps career seekers and business owners. Skip dreams about a day when a HomeBoy Industries can be opened for the cannabis industry. In this future, returning citizens will no longer be branded by past mistakes and each person will be judged on the merit of their current character and willingness to grow.