On May 2, a curious billboard went up along the South 5 Freeway in Los Angeles. It read, “Recently Pardoned? We’re Hiring.”
The sign was located on Daly Street, not far from the Men’s Central Jail and Twin Tower Correctional Facility, and paid for by Lowell Herb Co., the fastest growing cannabis company in California. Lowell was hoping to attract recently pardoned, non-violent offenders convicted for cannabis-related crimes, and it worked: Within 24 hours, the company received 100 resumes. In early June, they hired their first paroled employee.
California Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, was passed in November 2016. But while it was legal to possess and smoke pot in the state, selling and growing it was not; it wasn’t until January 1, 2018 that recreational sales were legal. During that transition period, arrests continued, on top of the hundreds of thousands that had already occurred: According to Federal data, 653,249 people were arrested for cannabis related acts in just 2016—more than for all the violent crimes combined. In California, 24 percent of those arrested were African Americans, who make up just 6 percent of the state’s population.
California leads the way on marijuana criminal justice reform. In December 2017, Governor Jerry Brown paroled 132 people imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes. In January 2018, George Gascon, the San Francisco District Attorney, dismissed thousands of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felony convictions. “When we read about that, we felt like there were probably a lot of really great people with non-violent offenses—sometimes first-time cannabis arrests—who were caught up in this,” says David Elias, CEO of Lowell Herb Co. “We began to wonder how we could play a role.”
California is the largest cannabis market in the world. It is also very competitive. And yet, since it’s founding in January 2017, Lowell Herb has become the number one manufacturer of pre-roll (meaning the joints are rolled for you). The business has grown “over a thousand percent in revenues in 12 months,” says Elias, with the staff increasing from five to over 70 people in a year and a half. (Time Out LA voted Lowell “the most innovative cannabis farm in California.”) That puts the company in an advantageous position: leaders of the industry. “And we felt strongly,” says Elias, “that we needed to acknowledge the people that were caught up in the turmoil of cannabis arrests, who now have records.”
The interview process for most jobs includes an application with a box to check if you have been arrested. If you check it, the likelihood of a call-back or offer drops 50 percent. “These applicants don’t even have the opportunity to explain the situation—like, if they were arrested for having 3 or 4 grams in their purse,” says Elias.
His company hoped to find those people, but how? “There’s no job board that says, Hey, you’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor, post your resume here because there are wonderful companies that want to give you a second chance!”
There was another problem: As fast-growing as the cannabis market is, it’s still not mainstream. “You can’t just advertise on radio or TV, and most print media isn’t ready for this,” says Elias. “So we had to do it all grassroots. Billboards are an old-school, person-to-person approach—how brands used to be built.” And it wasn’t just about announcing a job search, he adds, it was about raising awareness around a problem.
The company is just the latest startup for Elias, who has been building and selling businesses for 20 years. “As I’ve gotten older, the thing that matters most to me is seeing people succeed, and mentoring people,” he says. “In my experience, it’s often the applicants who are really talented but struggling to find a second chance, or the right opportunity, who outperform the candidate with no experience of conflict or hardship.”
So far, there have been no negative reactions to the billboard. “I think the reason why is that the people we connect with—the business people who know me personally, who know what we’re about—understand that this is true and dear to our hearts and what we believe in, not a random idea or marketing tool or whatever,” says Elias, whose company is noted for its responsible and organic cannabis farming. “It’s the core ethos of our business.”
He’s also pretty sure Lowell is the first company to try this unconventional form of hiring, but he suspects that will change. “The response we’ve received from some pretty high profile people has been nothing short of amazing,” says Elias, whose products get a lot of social media love from pot-smoking celebs like Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler (Lowell Herb Co. has also been featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live). “As soon they see it they almost instantly support it.”
One of those people is the rap artist Snoop Dogg, who, in addition to being a noted lover of weed, is dedicated to supporting social equity. “An initiative that no one knows about is meaningless,” says Elias. “In addition to the billboard, we’re also collaborating with Snoop’s digital platform, Merry Jane, which raises awareness of injustices related to cannabis crimes.”
Elias sees great similarities with the early 20th century prohibition of alcohol in America, an equally misguided experiment in social control that led to prejudiced policing and incarceration. “In 10 or 20 years,” he predicts, “we will look back on marijuana prohibition with the same shocking reaction.”