National Expungement Week Provides Resources, Help, and Hope for Victims of the Drug War

“I’m optimistic about the trajectory of ending the war on drugs,” says Adam Vine, cofounder of Cage Free Cannabis, an organization devoted to healing the harms caused by drug prohibition. “However, I’m concerned about the pace of the change. I think widespread and rapid relief is needed. I think that for people who have convictions on their records, those convictions continue to restrict their access to full and successful lives. So that’s what today’s events are all about.”

Vine is spending his Saturday at Chuco’s Justice Center in South Los Angeles for a record clearance and sealing clinic. It's part of the second annual National Expungement Week, a series of events in 30 major cities across the U.S. If you’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor or low-level felony related to drugs, you can show up and receive help and guidance in maybe getting your record sealed or expunged — especially if you live in a state that reformed its cannabis laws after your conviction. 

Last year's National Expungement Week resulted in 298 people having their records cleared or sealed, adding a three-million-dollar benefit to economies that need it the most. Four-hundred people got access to adjacent social services, including health screenings, employment resources, and voter registration — all ways of mitigating a bit of the damage inflicted by the United States government's continuing war on some drugs.

This year’s was significantly larger. A phalanx of organizations lent its weight to the effort. Coinciding events including National Voter Registration Day, the Last Prisoner Project Launch, and Code for America's National Day of Civic Hacking joined the coalition around National Expungement Week. For the LA event last week, participating sponsors Houseplant and Canopy Growth gave support from the commercial cannabis world.

Each city's event had unique features. Chicago's included information on Illinois's stupidly complex policies around cannabis. In Boston, candidates for local office held a debate. Here in Los Angeles, wraparound services featured a station for brake light repair, so that motorists could avoid being stopped for minor traffic violations (which is how a lot of institutional misery begins, especially in LA).

Last week, in a packed waiting room, a diverse cast of characters — teenagers, older men, mothers with children, and generations of families — waited patiently to be called forward. At tables, volunteers provided guidance and comfort as they walked attendees through the process of getting their records expunged. A young man with a distant smile, with paperwork under his arm, walked toward the exit. "Good luck, man!" said a volunteer.

America’s anti-drug laws are expressly rooted in racism. Enforcement disproportionately targets poor communities, people of color, and those perceived as threats to the (white, privileged) social order. Even a minor weed conviction can be utterly devastating (take Bernard Noble, for instance, who served seven years behind bars for two joints). Convicts can spend traumatic stints in jail and prison, lose their right to vote, and miss out on access to housing, public assistance, student loans, and employment. Lost economic opportunities can damage entire communities for generations.

It's a lot easier to get into this sort of trouble than it is to get out of it. The process of record-clearing can be complicated and confusing. Expungement (in which a criminal record is flat-out destroyed) and sealing (in which it still exists and is visible to law enforcement and some prospective employers) are different things. Laws vary regarding what offenses are eligible and what relief can then be received, from state to state and sometimes between counties.

“I think racism is behind the slow process,” Vine says. “There are politicians who continue to use tough-on-crime rhetoric as a way to get elected; using racist rhetoric to trigger the electorate. I think they stand in the way of progress.”

But in the age of legalization and commercialization, cannabis is becoming a luxury lifestyle product. Some get rich from commercial cannabis, but governments see little incentive to help those hurt by prohibition get access to resources like those available at National Expungement Week events. So the community picks up the slack.

At the Los Angeles event, Mauro Melgar was here to offer his support. After catching a felony conviction and ten-year sentence for the possession of two modest bags of weed, Melgar got his own record expunged through a previous clinic at Chuco’s. Now, he shared his story and ideas on how those affected by drug convictions can bounce back.

“Expungement opened one door, and another door, and got me advocating for transformative justice and repairing the harm done by the war on drugs in the communities, and to people of color,” said Melgar. “Everybody's after that profit. Government's trying to collect that tax revenue. They are not really thinking about giving back or reimbursing those people that were harmed.”

Indeed, as the cannabis industry continues to expand, it's hard not to notice who's getting rich from legal weed, and who's getting left behind. “I do this work in part because I'm a white guy who's been a cannabis consumer for 20 years, and I’ve never had to fear for my liberty or my life because of that,” said Vine. “I think it's very important for cannabis consumers to think about the ethics of the companies they're buying from.”

Indeed, as conscious cannabis consumers, we have some power to at least raise these issues, even it it requires asking difficult questions of the brands and dispensaries we choose to patronize. We can challenge these businesses to hire people from disadvantaged communities. In the ways we behave, talk, and think, we can challenge the degrading stereotypes around cannabis, many of which are racist in origin and are ready for retirement as part of a wholesale upheaval in our civilization’s relationship to one of its favorite plants.

"I think it's very important for cannabis consumers to think about the ethics of the companies they're buying from," says Vine. "And I think the consumer power in cannabis is somewhat untapped. So we are trying to change the consciousness of the cannabis consumer so that they understand that with every purchase they make, they have a chance to support a company owned by someone who's been impacted by the war on drugs or a company that's committed to helping repair those harms of the war on drugs.”

Resources from Cage Free Cannabis and National Expungement Week are available on the web year-round.

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