Among the benefits of cannabis legalization in places like California is the opportunity for those with marijuana-related convictions to have their records reduced or expunged altogether. By working with an attorney, self-filing a petition to the courts, or attending an expungement fair or clinic, most cannabis ex-cons (with a few exceptions, contingent on what other crimes populate their records) have been able to reduce their felonies to misdemeanors, and have their misdemeanors reduced to infractions or erased entirely. Once California's AB 1793 goes into effect in 2020, record clearing will happen automatically — but until then, record-holders in most jurisdictions need to take the initiative on their own.
However, after the process is complete, the question is, what's next? For many, it can herald a whole shift in self-identity and a deluge of opportunities once barred to those whose records had been smeared with felony convictions. "If you haven't been a felon, you don't know what it means," Sarah Okdie - a student at Golden Gate University School of Law - told Civilized. "But even if you take it off my record, you can't erase the damage it did to my personal life." Another ex-felon, Raul Sanchez, described the label as feeling like the "scurvy of the earth."
To learn about the adversity inherent in living life with a marijuana-related conviction, and what it's like on the other side after expungement, Civilized spoke to a handful of ex-felons about their experiences and what's next now that they've been pardoned.
Sarah Okdie, student at Golden Gate University School of Law
Okdie had opened a medical marijuana dispensary in 2010, and eight months later was raided. "They charged me with felony sales and transportation and then they seized the bank accounts, so I didn't have any money to hire an attorney," Okdie recalled. After a series of legal trials and tribulations, jail time, and so forth, with the help of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Okdie was able to have her case eventually dismissed. All in all, the process was more than four years, and for the majority of that time, Okdie was a felon.
During the case, she was working on completing her bachelor's degree, but because she had been convicted of a drug offense, she couldn't receive financial aid. And if her record hadn't eventually been cleared, she would have been barred from financial aid for life, Okdie explained. "While the case kept dragging on, I wasn't able to get a B.A.."
However, once her record was cleared, Okdie went on to apply to law school. "I'm able to get financial aid for law school because I don't have a record," she said. "This whole expungement movement is a good step in the right direction, but cannabis is still used to target certain groups of minorities within our communities."
Those who have cannabis convictions and who are barred from opportunities like financial aid, education, employment, public assistance, or voting rights are often forced into underground economies where they may incur further criminal charges. "Those people who were targeted with cannabis end up with other charges that can't be expunged outside smoking weed," Okdie said. A person of color may get stopped by a police officer for the smell of cannabis, and then get busted for a different offense on top of that, she said. "And there are a lot of people who don't recover from this type of thing."
Raul Sanchez, municipal employee
In 1999, Sanchez was arrested for possession of marijuana over an ounce and charged with transportation for sale. He was 19 years old. The crime was nonviolent, but nonetheless qualified him as a felon, with three years on joint suspension and six months in county jail.
"After you get out of jail and you're on probation, it's so difficult to get a job," Sanchez told Civilized. "You'd have to let your boss know, 'hey my probation officer might roll up to the job.'" So about 18 years later, he started looking to clear his record. "Hey, I've worked, I'm a productive citizen," he said. "I was a kid then, and now I'm an adult and I just want a second chance."
Under Prop 64 to legalize cannabis in California, Sanchez was able to have his felony reduced to a misdemeanor. "The big difference for me is that since I'm no longer a felon, I can apply for a municipal job. Working a city job, a government job, you need to have certain clearances," he said. "One of the reasons I'm able to have that job is because the law was passed. But there are too many people out there who don't know they could take advantage of this and they could better their lives."
Now with the weight of the felony lifted and his rights restored, Sanchez says he's surprised at how many opportunities he's not disqualified from anymore, since he doesn't have to check the box for any felony convictions. "Once this is off your chest, you have a whole new chapter in your life that you could live," said the father of four, who's also now a grandfather. "I have law enforcement clearances, my Second Amendment rights have been fully restored, my voting rights have been fully restored, and the fact that I'm not a felon anymore means I can get certain government loans for school, so I went to school after this."
Having his felony reduced to a misdemeanor, for Sanchez, meant shaking off the stigma. "Society looks at felonies like the scurvy of the earth," he said. "It's a dagger to your heart that the state imposes on you because of marijuana, just because of cannabis — a plant that has never killed anyone. It's just ridiculous."
Sailene Ossman, cannabis collective owner and founder of Ganja Goddess Getaway
Ossman had been convicted of multiple cannabis-related felonies, enduring not only a loss of civil rights and opportunities, but more importantly, she says, a huge emotional burden. "It shifted my life completely," Ossman told Civilized of cleaning up her record. "Now I get to hold my head up high and not be ashamed of what I truly love. It gave me the strength to say, 'Listen, I'm always going to show up for the plant and be her biggest advocate.' That's what expungement did for my life."
Since having her record cleared, thanks to Prop 64, Ossman opened a cannabis collective and started a cannabis retreat for women. "I can fully come out as long as I fully comply with the laws that were presented to me, so I immediately set up a collective," she said. "It gave me vast pride and more passion behind what I do."
Ossman continues to be civically involved, going to town hall meetings on cannabis policy and doing her part to ensure her local cannabis industry is just and socially equitable. "I'm not just a white lady," said Ossman, who's half Filipino. The War on Drugs has targeted Ossman, her family, and those within greater minority communities. "I'm not going to [complain], I'll show up and be the change I can be, that's how I live my life."