As the legal cannabis industry spreads across the country, the money flowing from it disproportionally makes its way into the pockets of well-educated, and well-off, white men. Meanwhile the victims of the War on Drugs, who are disproportionately disadvantaged men of color, still suffer from the consequences they faced for engaging in what is now a legitimate business. Some of these victims are still incarcerated. Even those long ago released from incarceration continue to face difficulties getting jobs, other business opportunities, and housing, or simply never recovered from having their educations and careers interrupted. The communities these men came from continue to suffer as well, with children who grew up without fathers present and with the stigma of an incarcerated family member, and families that lost the financial and emotional support of their loved ones. During the 2019 legislative session, the Oregon legislature passed two bills aimed at reducing some of the harm to its victims of the War on Drugs. Meanwhile, various programs seek to bring some of the opportunities and benefits of Oregon’s recreational cannabis industry to the people and communities most affected by the War on Drugs.
Senate Bills 420 and 975 Are Passed in the 2019 Legislative Session to Expunge Recreational Marijuana Convictions
Senate Bills 420 provides for the setting aside of marijuana related convictions that are based on actions that under today’s laws would not be crimes. Senate Bill 975 reduces the classification severity of marijuana related convictions that are based on actions that under today’s laws are still illegal, but have a less severe classification under today’s laws.
- Senate Bill 420
Senate Bill allows a person with a qualifying marijuana conviction to apply to the court for the conviction to be set aside.
Qualifying marijuana convictions are those:
- that are for possession of less than one ounce of the dried leaves, stems, or flowers of marijuana; or are for actions that would today fall under Oregon’s homegrown marijuana and homemade cannabinoid products and concentrates law. This law allows adults 21 years of age and older to grow up to four marijuana plants at a time; possess or store up to eight ounces of usable marijuana at a time; make, possess, or store up to 16 ounces of solid cannabinoid products at a time; make, possess, or store up to 72 ounces of liquid cannabinoid products at a time; and make, possess, or store up to 16 ounces of cannabinoid concentrates at a time; or
- that were committed prior to July 1, 2015; and
- for which the person has completed and fully complied with or performed the sentence of the court.
Filing fees and any other fees are waived for this motion. The prosecuting attorney can object to the setting aside of the conviction, but only on the basis that it was not a qualifying marijuana conviction. Records related to convictions that are set aside under this procedure are sealed.
- Senate Bill 975
Senate Bill 975 allows a person with a marijuana conviction to apply to the court for reduction of the severity of the conviction if, since entry of judgment of the conviction, the marijuana offense has been reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, reduced from a higher level felony to a lower level felony, reduced from a higher level misdemeanor to a lower level misdemeanor, or reduced from a crime to a violation.
As with motions provided for in Senate Bill 420, filing fees for these motions are waived. And as with Senate Bill 420, the prosecuting attorney can object to the motion, in this case only based on the conviction not being eligible for reduction under the law or the person not having completed and fully complied with or performed the sentence of the court.
City of Portland Cannabis Social Equity Grant
While legislation setting aside or reducing marijuana convictions is an important part of the social justice puzzle, such changes do not redress prior harm done to the victims of the War on Drugs; time incarcerated and opportunities lost years ago create a cumulative effect on a person’s life. Various private and public social justice programs seek to redress some of that harm by offering business grants, preferential licensing treatment, or other services to the people and communities most affected by the War on Drugs.
The City of Portland uses a portion of its 3% tax on retail sales of recreational cannabis to provide such grants.
The City of Portland describes its grant program as follows:
“The Cannabis Program in the Office of Community & Civic Life will award eight to ten month grants to ‘promote small businesses, especially women-owned and minority-owned businesses’ and ‘provide economic opportunity and education to communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition.’”
The program’s 2019 social justice grant fund is $700,000, of which $210,000 is used by Prosper Portland to provide industry support and technical assistance to minority-owned cannabis businesses. The remaining $490,000 is awarded in increments of $25,000 to $150,000 to non-profit and for-profit businesses for projects focused on the program’s priority areas, which are record clearing and expungement, workforce development, and re-entry housing services.
The War on Drugs disproportionately affected disadvantaged people of color and their communities. Efforts at beginning to address the harms have been slow to develop and generally lack large-scale effect or the multi-faceted approach that is needed. Private entities can and do make a big difference on a small-scale but generally lack the funding and reach to make far-reaching change. Numerous and shameful examples abound of incidences in which historical injustice has been swept under the rug by forward looking change in policy without a retrospective eye for the long term effects. From the treachery shown to Native American treaties to the empty promise of a mule and 40 acres to freed slaves, we have a history of failing to address the past while looking to the future. Here now is a chance to get this right, but it will take more resolve than we have shown so many times in the past.