Summer 2020

Advocacy: Making Amends — Cage-Free Cannabis Strives to Right the Wrongs of the War on Drugs

Counseling, expungement efforts, and bringing Black and Brown people into the cannabis marketplace are a few of the organization’s goals.

The War on Drugs had its heyday 40 years ago, yet its impact on minority communities continues to reverberate nationwide. These communities were hit particularly hard, with Black men and women thrown in jail for possession of small quantities of marijuana and given harsh sentences for their crimes. Today, they’re still recovering.

Alex Vine and Andrew Epstein, longtime activists in the drug reform arena, couldn’t sit back and do nothing about this unfair situation. In 2017, they founded Cage-Free Cannabis, an organization dedicated to righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs. The organization focuses on three main areas: expunging the records of those incarcerated unjustly, supporting policies that make it possible for people of color to reap the benefits of the cannabis industry, and striving to build an equitable, sustainable cannabis industry.

Vine and Epstein are also committed to getting the message out about the racist history of the War on Drugs as well as the racial underpinnings of many other related issues, including housing, health care, and police violence. With his background in marketing and media, Epstein had been producing advocacy videos even before the organization was launched. He hopes his ability to get the word out, coupled with the growth of Cage-Free Cannabis, can help level the level the playing field and give people of color a way to enter the cannabis marketplace.

“Since the cannabis industry has taken off, white venture capitalists have invested heavily and taken a large share of the action, largely because it’s expensive to start a business,” Epstein explains. “We go in and talk to those companies, encouraging them to diversify the supply chain. I would even go as far to say that we ‘guilt trip’ them into bringing in people of color; we promise that we will put out the message that their company is the place to go to buy marijuana. It’s a similar model that Paul Newman used when he launched his brand. People bought his tomato sauce not only because it tasted good but because the profits went to charity.

“For us,” Epstein continues, “the carrot is that these companies are part of building an equitable industry for all. The bottom line is that we want everyone who is interested to have an opportunity to join the cannabis marketplace.”

Unfortunately, equal access to the cannabis industry is not the state of play at the moment. “I knew a science teacher in Colorado back in 2011 who mortgaged his house and put everything he owned into a cannabis business,” Epstein says. “He built a successful company even though his financial situation had been about average beforehand. But people of color usually aren’t in a position to do that. They have no financial security, no collateral. A domino effect going back 40 years has had an impact on generations. Once a father, a brother, or an uncle gets taken off the street for a nonviolent crime, all bets are off about their future and that of their families.”

The Push for Expungement
This reality was the driving force behind National Expungement Week, started in 2018. Cage-Free Cannabis and its nonprofit sister organization, Cage-Free Repair, organized clinics in 40 states to help people complete the necessary paperwork to erase their nonviolent crimes from their records.

Many people stand to benefit from this effort. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 77 million Americans, or 1 in 3 adults, have a criminal record. Often their crimes are nonviolent in nature.

In previous years, planning for the event began in the summer, with the first week in September designated as National Expungement Week. Depending on the needs of each community, multiple services can be offered. In addition to help with expungement, health care and social security enrollment, immigration services, voter registration, and food assistance enrollment are among the many options.

To provide these services, the Cage-Free Cannabis team recommends partnering with organizations with the needed expertise. Legal organizations such as the Legal Aid Society and Pro Bono Lawyers can help with the legal issues, while social services agencies are key to helping people overcome housing and food needs, as well as providing child care assistance and on-site health screenings.

“In many communities, our work has paid off,” Epstein says. “Last year, 150 people’s records were expunged in Los Angeles. In Michigan, tutorial business clinics were offered. While we’re pleased with these results, we would like to make an even greater impact. At this point in time, however, we simply don’t have the resources to do so.”

This year, planning for National Expungement Week faces unanticipated obstacles. The pandemic means that the event must be held virtually. The organization has started planning and rounding up volunteers to figure out who’s available to take on which tasks. Organizers still plan to have the event in 40 states, but how it will look is still evolving.

Looking ahead, Epstein hopes that one day there won’t be a need for an organization such as Cage-Free Cannabis. Even now, there are places where the expungement process is automated, a trend Epstein would like to see adopted nationwide. Even better, he would like to see the unfair cannabis marketplace become open to more people of color.

“Although we continue to make progress, people are still arrested for marijuana use and possession. While legalization is a step in the right direction, what would really make a difference is decriminalization, which has to happen at the federal level. Without that policy shift, it will be difficult to build an equitable industry where everyone can participate and profit,” Epstein says.

— Marilyn Fenichel is a health and science writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The Rise of Medical Cannabis Has Made a Difference

The growing recognition about the value of medical cannabis for pain management and other uses has had a positive impact on the cannabis industry. “Medical marijuana has opened people’s eyes about the substance itself,” says longtime activist Andrew Epstein. “It’s bringing perceptions of marijuana more in line with those about alcohol. It’s always been amazing to me how alcohol is celebrated while marijuana is spurned. Perhaps that, too, will change in the coming years.”

— MF


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