Although cannabis has been legal in Washington for five years, many of those who had been arrested — who were disproportionately people of color — still feel the lingering effects of the war on marijuana.
Those remaining records can be a barrier to jobs and other opportunities — and expunging that record can be costly.
But Jesce Horton hopes to help.
Horton, a Portland business owner and co-founder of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, hopes to address some of that disparity with a Seattle event on May 20 — “Expungement Day.”
“Here in Portland, an expungement can cost someone, for example for one individual charge, sometimes up to $1,000 when you get through all the legal fees and the state fees and of course the people who need it the most don’t have that money to do it,” Horton said. “We’re really going after those targeted communities and a lot of times those lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”
The free event will allow people to get help with the court paperwork to get their records expunged. People interested must make an appointment. Most cannabis charges qualify to be expunged, including felony cannabis charges, in certain cases. The exception is DUI.
The group, in partnership with Marley Natural, hosted a similar event in Portland last August, successfully assisting 25 people vacate their records. Event planners hope to support at least 50 people to expunge their records in Seattle.
While anyone of any background is welcome to attend, Horton’s hope for the event is that people from communities disproportionately impacted by what Horton refers to as “cannabis prohibition” will take advantage of this opportunity to get a fresh start.
With dispensaries popping up all over the city, the time when marijuana use and sales could land someone in jail everywhere in the United States seems like a distant memory. However the impacts still linger and arrests disproportionately affected people of color and people in poor communities.
According to a 2013 report released by the ACLU between 2001-2010 there were more than 8 million cannabis related arrests in the United States. Of these arrests, 88 percent were charges of possession. Though marijuana use is roughly the same across demographics, black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people.
In the state of Washington the disparity exists, though it is slightly lower. Black people are 2.9 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Latinos and Native Americans have a 1.6 times greater chance to get arrested than white people.
From 1986-2010 there have been 240,000 cannabis related arrests in the state of Washington. Between arrests and incarceration this has cost taxpayers between $300 million to $400 million dollars for crimes that are no longer crimes.
That can affect a person’s opportunities. And Horton, who owns Panacea Valley Gardens, a cultivation center and dispensary in Portland, speaks from experience.
Horton, who was an engineer before entering the cannabis industry, was arrested three times on cannabis charges and says his record was a barrier to obtaining employment.
But Horton added that “Expungement Day” is a small part of what the organization does, which seeks to support people of color who want to become entrepreneurs in this growing industry.
Because despite the legalization of marijuana in Washington, the pathways to creating lucrative business opportunities seem inaccessible to communities of color.
Or, as Seattle hip hop artist Draze put it in his track “Irony on 23rd,” about Uncle Ike’s businesses in the Central District: “How many brothers went to jail for moving dime bags, in a week he doin’ what? A couple hundred grand?”
Horton hopes to encourage minority business owners to enter the industry.
“As a result we started the Minority Cannabis Business Association to asses what the economic empowerment, social justice, patient and consumer awareness of people of color and targeted communities, communities that were traditionally target by the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition to get an opportunity to benefit from legalization of cannabis,” he said.
He said the biggest barriers keeping people of color from the industry are education, networking and policy.
The group has worked with the ACLU, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and National Cannabis Industry Association, Drug Policy Alliance in order to begin addressing the issues communities of color have with marijuana. The association also offers monthly webinars, mentorship and networking events, and educational forums about the cannabis industry.
“We think that allowing more people to get in — also by looking at these communities that have been dealing with generational repercussions of drug arrests and addiction — finding ways to uplift and build these communities through cash appropriation and through community engagement,” Horton said.
“We firmly believe that by doing these things the cannabis industry will see growth, will see sustainable backing, and will see really a larger and very very important community stand behind them as we go into this new era of the industry,” he said.