An estimated 40,000 people today are incarcerated for marijuana offenses even as: the overall legal cannabis industry is booming; one state after another is legalizing; and cannabis companies are making healthy profits.
That discrepancy is dead wrong, four activists agreed this week. They spoke at a webinar on how to achieve racial justice in the cannabis space, whether that means getting people released or finding them a job.
The panelists also focused on what the cannabis industry itself can do to help. “There are 70 million people in this country with criminal records, and each and every one of them goes through hell finding a job,” said Richard Bronson, founder and CEO of 70 Million Jobs, a staffing agency for people with criminal records.
“Many, many are men and women of color who have done their time,” Bronson pointed out, “and too many are in jail for activity that has subsequently been legalized. It’s an irony of gruesome proportions.”
The webinar was one in a series organized by the cannabis staffing agency Vangst; its CEO Karson Humiston served as moderator. Also on the panel were Arlene Mejia, re-entry project lead of the Last Prisoner Project, which focuses on criminal justice reform; and Weldon Angelos, co-founder and president of Project Mission Green.
Bronson has been incarcerated; so have three of Mejia’s three brothers, she said. But Angelos’s prison story is particularly striking: In 2002 he was a successful music producer in Utah working with Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur’s recording group. Then he was arrested for three counts of selling marijuana, totaling $900. Because of mandatory sentencing laws, Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison – an over-the-top penalty that attracted protests from celebrities as disparate as Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., singers Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys and arch-conservative billionaires the Koch brothers (Angelos: “When I met Charles Koch, he said, ‘The only thing different between you and me is you got caught.’”).
Angelos’s famous supporters helped: He was pardoned by President Obama in 2016. And his travails have led him to work on cannabis-related criminal justice ever since.
There’s good reason for such activism, Bronson said during the webinar. “Prior to the onset of the virus, the unemployment rate in this country was about 3.5 percent, historically low,” Bronson noted. “However, among those who have records, and that includes drug-related ones, the rate of unemployment was almost 30 percent, which was the highest unemployment rate of any discrete population, including during the Great Depression.
“God only knows what it is now.”
Clearly, many of those in prison are people of color with distressing stories of how race influenced their arrests, sentencing and problems upon re-entry. That third factor is why The Last Prisoner Project concentrates not just on prisoner release but on re-entry assistance and record expungement.
What happens after release is key, Bronson agreed. “It’s such an incredibly daunting challenge to get a job, and that includes the lowest-paid jobs,” he said. “There’s a 70 percent change these people will be re-arrested. That’s recidivism.
“What as a society do we expect people to do? They need to eat. They often have families. Families need to eat.” And when newly released people encounter hostility and racism, Bronson said, “It’s easy for people to say, ‘Screw it. I’m going to go back to my old life, where my friends are, on the street, where I can make a lot more money and not have to put up with this.’”
What cannabis employers need to realize is this population’s difficulties in re-entry, the speakers said. Humiston, the Vangst CEO, recounted one woman telling her how she’d had a Blackberry when she went to prison – and then an iPhone when she got out. “She has no clue how to use an iPhone,” Humiston said. “It’s mind-boggling; so much changes so fast.”
And not only technology changes but former prisoners’ societal coping skills. Angelos described how after 13 years in prison he couldn’t be around crowds. “I went to the mall, and I just ran out,” he recalled. “I left my sister. I couldn’t handle it.”
Bronson, meanwhile, spoke about issues employers don’t consider: like the absence of a computer and how that forces former prisoners to rely on phones. “A job search on a phone is a miserable user experience,” Bronson pointed out. Filling out forms on a phone is “daunting, discouraging.”
And then, should a job interview arise, people may not show up because of details employers never consider, Bronson said, listing lack of transportation, lack of cash, lack of proper wardrobe. “One thing after another conspires,” he said, noting that his organization has partnered with Uber and Lyft on at least the transportation piece.
Another hurdle are those first early, scary days on the job for ex-inmates. A mentor in the company is crucial Bronson said. “People who have come out of jail or prison feel very isolated, freaked out, ostracized, ashamed.”
Also key are employers’ attitudes. ‘My supervisor was a little suspicious and less trusting of me because of my conviction; and how we change that I don’t know,” Angelos said.
The good news is that once employers gain former inmates’ trust, they will have hard-working, loyal employees who stick around, Bronson said. As evidence he cited a Society for Human Resource Management study showing hiring managers giving high marks to such hires.
The important thing is that the cannabis industry do its part, Bronson said. This means no “Black Lives Matter” ad slogans unless those companies put that slogan into action, he said. “I absolutely believe it behooves the cannabis industry and is an obligation of their theirs, and an opportunity to change lives,” Bronson said of the industry’s need to step up with funding and employment.
“There’s a way large and small employers can change things, and that’s through economic enfranchisement,” Bronson said. “You give someone a way to make a living, you’re giving them a chance.”