One of the toughest obstacles faced by those reentering society after a period of incarceration is finding legitimate employment that pays well enough to allow them to maintain a crime-free lifestyle. Ex-offenders often find themselves right back in the same old lifestyle because other opportunities simply aren’t open to them. This seems particularly puzzling when the offenders in question were locked up for nonviolent weed offenses in the first place and were released into a world where Prohibition has come to an end in many states. Furthermore, many states have statutes that specifically don’t allow anyone convicted of any type of felony, cannabis crimes included, to work in the cannabis industry in any capacity whatsoever. Fortunately, regulations are evolving with the industry to provide better opportunities for ex-offenders. It’s important to remember that the cannabis industry is still in its fledgling state and will undoubtedly go through many changes in the years to come.
It makes little sense that someone who was convicted of creating and maintaining a cannabis grow operation, for instance, is now unable to legally work in that field, particularly when they bring significant knowledge to the picture. The prevailing rationale seems to be that disallowing ex-offenders from working in the industry on a legal basis is a necessary step to keep the industry operating legally rather than as an extension of the black market of the past. Some jurisdictions, however, are beginning to recognize the value ex-offenders potentially bring to the industry as well as the value of removing obstacles to gainful employment. Here’s what’s happening as far as social equity in several states with emerging recreational cannabis industries:
Social Equity Programs
Certain states in which the electorate has recently voted to end Prohibition have also enacted legislation which allows ex-offenders to have cannabis-related convictions expunged from their records. Some are even taking it further and providing training for ex-offenders to work in the cannabis industry. As with many other social issues, Massachusetts is leading the charge with a social equity program that provides training and assistance to ex-offenders wishing to enter the industry as a legal player. In some cases, the program also helps level the field by providing the participants with a degree of protection from competition. The program was inspired by lawmakers who noticed that many communities throughout Massachusetts had been hit hard by drug laws of the past.
Another goal of the program is to develop and cultivate racial diversity in the industry. A recent survey revealed that slightly more than 80% of those currently in the cannabis industry are white, while the areas impacted by drug laws have traditionally been predominantly populated by minorities. Applicants receive assistance in a variety of ways. Some are hoping to become cannabis entrepreneurs, while others seek to gain entry-level experience.
Massachusetts lawmakers hope that their equity programs act as a model for other states.
California offers a program designed to assist ex-offenders with transitioning to careers in the cannabis industry. When the state enacted legislation legalizing recreational use of cannabis, it also made it possible for those with cannabis-related misdemeanors and felonies to have these crimes expunged from their records, which removed a major obstacle to gaining housing and employment. However, those who have been deemed a threat to public safety will not be able to take advantage of this. This could mean that the charges included violence or selling substances to minors.
Certain California cities have developed social equity programs of their own. San Francisco recently expunged cannabis felonies dating back to 1975 as well as implemented an assistance program for ex-offenders seeking business or employment opportunities. Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento have joined San Francisco in their efforts.
Although Oregon hasn’t yet passed legislation that would automatically expunge the records of those with a misdemeanor or felony conviction on cannabis-related charges, a law was passed in 2015 making it easier for those with cannabis convictions to have their records sealed. Perhaps best of all, when someone requests to have their conviction set aside or sealed, the court must take into consideration how the same offense would be prosecuted under today’s laws. For instance, someone with a conviction for growing several plants on their property could get their conviction set aside because doing so now is not illegal.
Oregon will probably follow in California’s footsteps at some point shortly. Oregon has also implemented a “ban-the-box” law, which essentially makes it illegal for an employee to disqualify an applicant solely because of their criminal history. However, this can be difficult to prove.
Washington’s Fair Chance Act mirrors Oregon’s “ban-the-box” law. Employers are not allowed to ask about criminal history until and unless they have been determined to be qualified for the job. In other words, this prevents scenarios where employers automatically rule out applicants in the initial stages because of their criminal history. Nonetheless, employers are still allowed to ask about any existing criminal history during the actual job interview.
These states are not alone, however. Thirteen other states have enacted variations of “ban-the-box” laws, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It’s important to note that these laws don’t apply to federal employment no matter what state the actual physical location of the job is in. Further, since cannabis remains illegal on a federal level, those with cannabis convictions usually aren’t eligible for hire, even on a subcontractor basis.
Current Restrictions and Regulations on License Applicants and Employees of Cannabis Businesses
Because the industry is in such a state of flux and growth, the restrictions and regulations listed below are probably not the last word concerning licensing applicants and potential employees.
Alaska has no programs designed to help ex-offenders enter the cannabis industry on any level.
The state of Alaska does not issue cannabis business licenses to those who have had a felony conviction in the last five years or who are still on parole. Certain Class A Misdemeanors may also disqualify them for a period of two to five years, including convictions involving selling alcohol to a person under the age of 21. Employees of cannabis businesses in Alaska must be able to obtain a state-issued marijuana handler’s card which involves a criminal background check. Anyone on parole for a felony, under indictment, or has been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors during the past five years may be ineligible for employment in a dispensary or other cannabis business.
California’s requirements for licensure are limited to significant felonies involving controlled substances, but if the applicant has fulfilled all parole, probation, and sentence requirements, the person’s criminal history cannot be the sole reason for denying a cannabis business license. The state has no restrictions on employees of cannabis businesses.
Those will felony convictions during the past five years may be ineligible for cannabis business licenses in the state of Colorado along with anyone with a felony involving a controlled substance during the past 10 years. The same restrictions apply to employees, and everyone working on-site must be licensed by the state.
Those with felony convictions in Massachusetts or any other state are not allowed to hold a controlling interest in a cannabis business except for those whose convictions were solely for possession of controlled substances. Anyone with convictions for distributing may not be eligible. The same standards apply to employees, and each individual involved in any capacity in a cannabis business in Massachusetts, although those employed in cannabis laboratories may face stricter requirements.
Nevada applicants for cannabis business licenses may be denied if they have Class A Felony convictions on their record in Nevada or any other state. However, the state has an exemption for those whose sentences were completed 10 or more years before the time of application for the license. Restrictions for employees in Nevada mirror those of business license applicants. Everyone involved in any capacity must be able to obtain a state-issued marijuana establishment agent card.
Applicants for cannabis business licenses may be denied if they have convictions for certain felonies, but simple possession convictions and those involving growing or distributing to those over the age of 21 are exempt. Employees must obtain state-issued marijuana permits and may be denied if they have one felony conviction within the past three years or two felony convictions within the past five years. Certain convictions do not apply, however, such as growing and possession convictions that are more than two years old.
Washington’s regulations concerning cannabis business licenses involve a point system based on the severity of the convictions, and applicants with eight or more points will not be issued licenses. This system does not count felonies over 10 years old or misdemeanors over three years old. The point system also doesn’t count two or fewer possession misdemeanors in the past three years, and single convictions for growing distribution may be allowed to be mitigated on the application, but this is decided on a case-by-case basis. The state of Washington imposes no restrictions on employees of cannabis businesses.
At this point, restrictions and regulations involving medical cannabis might be even more stringent than in states where recreational cannabis has recently become legal.
Benefits of Including Ex-Offenders in the Legal Cannabis Industry
Allowing ex-offenders to participate in legal cannabis enterprises has benefits for both business owners and the industry as a whole.
Benefits for Businesses
Besides the obvious benefit of reducing the obstacles to legitimate employment faced by those who have served their time and are hoping to find legitimate employment, allowing ex-offenders to participate in the legal cannabis industry has many advantages for business owners as well as the industry as a whole. For instance, it will cut down on employers having to train new employees because ex-offenders will bring knowledge and expertise to the table. It will also provide employers with a greater applicant pool from which to choose, helping them weed out those with little interest in the job and no experience.
Benefits for the Industry
Despite the somewhat prevailing mindset in some areas that ex-offenders being allowed involvement in the legitimate cannabis industry would result in them bringing black market elements to the picture, the opposite scenario is much more likely to happen. If ex-offenders aren’t able to obtain legitimate employment, they may return to the black market to keep food on their tables, taking their industry expertise with them.
Today’s newly emerging cannabis industry probably bears very little resemblance to its counterpart of the future. It’s a given that plenty of twists and turns are on the road ahead, especially until Prohibition ends on a federal level. Welcoming those with nonviolent cannabis convictions to the party will bring valuable strength and diversity to the overall picture.