Entrepreneur

Cannabis entrepreneur: Expungement backlog is a continued injustice in ‘heavy-handed’ war on drugs

When Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed cannabis legalization and reg- ulation in 2018, they did so with the understanding that it would come with several benefits for our state. Many of those promises have been fulfilled, but we’re still leaving too many people behind.

Michigan ranks third in the nation in terms of jobs created, with more than 31,000 directly employed by the cannabis industry.

And last year, the state treasury took in $172 million in excise tax revenue dedicated toward local governments where cannabis businesses are located and to schools and roads statewide.

Most importantly, we are not wasting law enforcement resources policing a plant that has real medical benefits and that research shows to be far less problematic than either alcohol or tobacco.

Policymakers and cannabis industry insiders from across the country point to Michigan as a state that is getting legalization right.

At the same time, we still have too many people who continue to be haunted by the ghosts of prohibition. Thousands of people continue to have jobs, student loans or housing opportunities denied to them simply because they have a past cannabis offense on their record.

Past convictions are also preventing parents from participating in their kids’ school activities. We should not be punishing people for something they did in the past that is now legal today, but here we are.

Our lawmakers recognized the unfairness of this situation and attempted to address the legacy of prohibition by passing a series of criminal justice reforms that would allow people with low-level cannabis and other types of minor offenses a path to clear their records.

The Clean Slate legislation went into effect in April 2021, giving hope to roughly 1 million Michiganders who are estimated to be eligible to have their records expunged.

As someone with a criminal record myself, I know what it’s like to be denied opportunities.

I left my corporate insurance job to become one of the early entrants into Michigan’s medical cannabis market and launched one of the state’s first medical provisioning centers shortly after the 2008 medical marijuana law was passed.

I paid the price dearly and was sentenced to four years in federal prison for trying to provide medical marijuana to sick people. When I came back to Michigan, I was disqualified from obtaining my own licensed cannabis business.

Today, instead of operating my own licensed facility, I run a cannabis brand that licenses my personal story and mission to other growers.

We donate 10 percent of the proceeds from Redemption Cannabis products to causes that help right the wrongs of prohibition.

We started The Redemption Foundation, which has helped provide resources to free cannabis prisoners like Michael Thompson, a Flint man sentenced to 60 years in prison for selling a few pounds of cannabis. More people like Michael continue to serve time for something that businesses make millions of dollars doing today. Legalization is failing those individuals.

The Redemption Foundation also launched the Great Lakes Expungement Network, which seeks to help people through the state’s new expungement process. GLEN provides free legal support to walk applicants through the process of filling out their application and petitioning their local court to have their record cleared.

GLEN has held expungement clinics across the state where more than 1,100 applicants to-date have been fingerprinted and screened for expungement eligibility. Of those applicants, the program has been able to submit expungement applications for nearly 500 people who are now playing a waiting game.

The backlog of expungement applications means that it can take up to eight months for people to have their records cleared.

Every day they wait means they are delaying improving their lives. It could mean a new job or promotion lost. Or it could mean having to wait until the next semester before they can apply for their student loan and begin working toward a degree that will propel them in their career.

Given the fact that only 10,000 of the 1 million eligible Michiganders statewide have applied to have their records cleared, the backlog is certain to get worse before it gets better unless serious efforts are made to address this issue.

Fortunately, Michigan lawmakers are in a position to lift up those who have been left behind by legalization. The state is currently sitting on $2 billion in American Rescue Plan dollars plus one of the largest revenue surpluses in state history. By dedicating just half of one percent of those resources, lawmakers could fund a coordinated statewide expungement program that gives hundreds of thousands of people a chance at a better life.

The injustice of cannabis prohibition and the heavy-handed War on Drugs has entrapped people across the state.

A recent study published in the Harvard Law Review indicates that people often see their wages rise by 23 percent after having their past conviction cleared. That will translate to more purchasing power to support local small businesses and an economic boost for the entire state.

Let’s make sure cannabis legalization works for everyone and not just the select few.


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