Terrell Anderson was 15 when the Chicago teenager was arrested and charged with possessing 1 ounce and 3 grams of cannabis.
It’s been a downhill ride ever since, said Anderson, who has spent 13 of his 37 years in prison. The youngest of three children, he never finished high school, never married, had children, or maintained a full-time job.
His convictions have haunted him for more than two decades, a “paper prison” that has constrained him from obtaining steady jobs, from applying for educational loans or public housing, and even from joining the National Guard.
“Every time you try to open a door, someone slams it shut in your face,” said Anderson, who supports himself with odd jobs such as moving furniture and minor home maintenance. “Mentally, you get depressed after all these setbacks. You ask yourself why you put yourself through all of this.”
With 33 states and the District of Columbia approving medical marijuana, 10 states with legalized adult use cannabis and more states, such as Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, attempting to pass legalization laws, the issues of social justice and social equity loom large.
For four decades, the federal war on drugs has ensnared millions of Americans, many for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
A 2010 analysis of U.S. marijuana arrests by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for possession, and frequently only for small amounts. The ACLU arrest data also found “significant racial bias,” noting that nationally, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.
And while blacks and Latinos constitute just 31.5% of the U.S. population, they accounted for nearly 47% of all people arrested for drug law violations.
Anderson told Weedmaps News that his convictions have killed his chances for employment.
“I served my time, but they hold my record against me. This hopelessness is why so many people return to the streets,” he said.
He added that legalizing marijuana in Illinois “would stop many young black men from going to jail and getting caught up in the justice system cycle. I would like to work in the marijuana industry once it’s legalized, but there’s that Catch-22. I can’t do it without having a clean background and to get a clean background I have to have a job and a clean record,” he said.
Former Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2016. Twenty-one other states have also decriminalized or ended prison sentences for simple weed possession, but penalties in some states remain harsh.
The sponsors of Illinois’ adult-use legalization bill, now awaiting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, have integrated measures to redress past convictions. Illinois is poised to become a leader in social equity legislation with its new legalization status. In a Twitter post on May 31, 2019, the governor said, “The state of Illinois just made history, legalizing adult-use cannabis with the most equity-centric approach in the nation.”
Rose Ashby, field director for Democrats state Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Kelly Cassidy, sponsors of that bill, said its backers are “throwing a lot of darts at the equity board. To help deal with the past, we’re proposing criminal records expungements. For the present we’re modifying the business and licensing structure to allow greater access and entry for minorities to the cannabis industry and for the future, we’re re-investing in the minority communities devastated by the war on drugs, rebuilding through the proceeds of marijuana sales,” Ashby told Weedmaps News.
Illinois legalization advocates hope that will coalesce diverse support and overcome growing opposition. Mark Peysakhovich, a Chicago-based marijuana lobbyist and consultant, said while the bill does include minority business set-asides, he noted that economic equity will be difficult to achieve.
“One of the main issues in other states was that the communities most impacted by the war on drugs did not feel they had a say in their bills. That’s not true in Illinois, where our Legislature’s black caucus has been involved since the beginning,” Peysakhovich said. “Social justice has been the goal all along. Hopefully, the sponsors in Illinois will have learned from what tripped up legalization bills in other states and avoid those problems.”
Post-Legalization Challenges in Michigan
Matthew Abel, an attorney specializing in marijuana issues with the Detroit firm Cannabis Counsel, said he strongly believed expungement should have been included within the adult-use law passed in November 2018 by Michigan voters.
But Abel, the director of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said: “Unfortunately, that was not included out of concern that components of expungement efforts would have invalidated the law.”
Abel told Weedmaps those drug minor drug convictions effectively freeze out offenders from participating in the legal commercial marijuana market.
“A criminal record is a block. You do not pass go. Under Michigan law, selling as little as one joint was a felony. It doesn’t have to be a kingpin conviction to bar somebody. It shouldn’t have been a felony in the first place,” Abel said.
Expungement, Abel explained, is the court-ordered process of deleting a conviction from the public record and is the gold standard. If a court grants that request, then the crime should cease to exist.
Sealing a record is different. Sealed records still exist, but they are not part of the public record and can be accessed and reviewed only by court order.
A pardon is an executive act of clemency. The conviction still exists, but the crime is forgiven.
Expungements and sealed records shouldn’t turn up on criminal background checks, Abel said, but sometimes do.
He conceded that expungement is hotly debated in Michigan.
“The Legislature could authorize expungement. It could be done by ballot initiative, but that’s doubtful. There was more buy-in for legalization than there was for expungement,” Abel said. “The governor could do it on her own. She has the pardon power.”
California passed a law that will expunge the records of hundreds of thousands of offenders. A few California cities and counties have collaborated with San Francisco-based Code for America to speed the record expungement process in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Joaquin counties.
Reining in Enforcement
In a recent joint letter from social justice and civil rights organizations to leading congressional committee leaders, the ACLU, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Sentencing Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance urged Congress to suspend the enforcement activities of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
“The agency approaches drugs from a purely criminalization standpoint, under the misguided belief that the U.S. can reduce drug use through arrest and incarceration. Its approach is heavy-handed, ineffective, unscientific, and deeply damaging to communities in this country,” the organizations wrote.
Their letter noted that while 95% of the nearly 2.2 million currently incarcerated Americans will be released from prison and jails, nearly 40% will be re-incarcerated within three years.
Pain of Life Outside Bars
Sodiqa Williams, General Counsel and Vice President of External Affairs for the Chicago-based Safer Foundation, a nonprofit agency working to re-assimilate criminal offenders, told Weedmaps News that it isn’t just minor marijuana convictions that can ruin lives.
“It begins with the arrest, which can cascade into unforeseen legal circumstances,” said Williams, who called minor marijuana convictions the entry point into a justice system that can wreak havoc on offenders’ lives.
“Once the justice system gets a hold of you, it’s hard to get out,” she said. “It keeps piling on as you move through the system. Court hearings. Fines. Probation and probation officers. Incarceration. We’re finally seeing decreases in our prison population. But this still happens for some cannabis offenders.”
Williams said residents in economically depressed communities of color are at higher risk to stumble into the judicial morass.
“People in communities of color are policed more frequently and more aggressively, have higher rates of unemployment, economic disinvestment, and health and housing access issues, and are struggling just to keep it together,” she said. “I see cannabis arrests as the first step in getting hooked into that system.”
Feature image: Even minor marijuana convictions can become the entry point into a justice system that can wreak havoc on offenders’ lives, experts say. With a criminal record, few can escape the “paper prison” that limits their ability to hold a job, get an education and more. Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash