Should Felons Be Allowed In Legal Cannabis Industries?
There are many states who have legalized cannabis, either medicinally or recreationally, that outlaw felons from participating in the industry.
When states outlaw the participation of felons in their cannabis industries, it’s important to understand who exactly they are keeping out. In order to understand this, we need to look at some of the underlying trends of drug incarceration in America.
“Only 8% of Los Angeles County residents are black, yet they make up 30% of people jailed for marijuana only offenses in the county. Comparatively, Latinos account for nearly half (49%) of the county’s population, but make up 42% of those jailed, and whites are 27% of the population, but make up 20% of the jailed population.”
So in a world where over half of the country has legalized medicinal or Adult Use cannabis, creating a multi-billion dollar industry, what happens to those incarcerated for the same plant? How do we include those who had their lives destroyed by cannabis prohibition into the new legal market?
Other states followed suit. Ohio set aside 15 cannabis licenses for minority businesses in their law; Pennsylvania required cannabis license applicants to outline their process for including minorities in their businesses.
Some states are trying, but fall embarrassingly short of the mark. Maryland tried to pass a bill to ensure minorities were represented within their new legal industry, but that bill was not actually acted upon. Not a single minority applicant was granted one of their 15 licenses. Because of this, multiple lawsuits have been filed against the Maryland Medicinal Cannabis Commission (MMCC), and former police chief and member of the MMCC, Harry Robshaw III, is being accused of exercising “overt racism” in the selection process.
Cities within states outlawing felons have also decided to act.
The damage done, and still being done, by the War On Drugs is no secret. Instead of declining, we have only seen drug use zoom upwards. Instead of rehabilitating drug addicts, we now have a full-on Opioid Epidemic in our country and private prisons at capacity, with 2.3 million Americans locked inside.
Allowing former “marijuana felons” into the legal cannabis industry helps repair some of that damage. For those who have carried the burden of a felony marijuana charge brought on them by their state, and are now seeing the same plant make a lot of people rich, reparations are due.
It’s up to those in the cannabis industry and writing cannabis law to fight for their inclusion.
Just because cannabis is legal in California doesn’t mean those behind bars for federal offenses related to it will see the light of day anytime soon. It’s a harsh reality when those facing time, or who are already serving it, for cannabis related offenses are being released or facing lesser charges because their “crimes” weren’t on the federal level. Unfortunately, despite the turning of the tide with cannabis prohibition among individual states, its legality on the federal level doesn’t look like it will budge anytime soon.
Stuck Behind Bars
Luke Scarmazzo sits behind bars in a federal prison, charged with marijuana distribution and running a continuing criminal enterprise. Early in the Californian cannabis industry, Luke, along with a friend from high school, Ricardo Montes, opened a medical marijuana store. Only in their twenties, they were at one point bringing in over $10,000 a month in sales. In fact, it’s estimated that they had roughly $9 million in transactions between 2005 to 2007. However, between the two men, Scarmazzo held little back when it came to showing off his success. From flaunting his money in a YouTube video to driving a flashy car, Luke had this to say about his behavior:
“I was young and came into more money than we had ever seen before,” Scarmazzo said in phone interview with The Sacramento Bee last month from a federal prison in the Valley town of Mendota. “I bought things and spent carelessly, not thinking of the future – nor how it looked.”
Luke also had a prior assault offense, which might have contributed to why he’s still behind bars.
In January of 2017, President Obama granted Montes clemency. His scheduled release date from prison was set for May 19th, 2017. After spending 9 years behind bars, he won’t have to finish out the rest of his 20 year sentence. This act received much praise, as two jurors on the case had written letters seeking leniency for the men and Montes’ daughters created an online petition titled “Free Our Dads!”.
Scarmazzo, on the other hand, received word in January that his request to have his sentence commuted was denied. While his crime was no greater than his partner, the indiscretions of his past could have influenced this decision. In the meantime, he will have to sit and wait to finish out his 21 year and 10 month sentence; unless, of course, something drastically changes for those charged with federal marijuana crimes.
Since so many states have adopted laws allowing the use of cannabis, the number of people sentenced for federal crimes pertaining to cannabis has gone down for the fifth year in a row. While this sounds like good news, the fact that people operating legal businesses with regard to cannabis under state laws can still face persecution under federal laws makes for a gamble.
In 2013, the Department of Justice issued a statement to federal prosecutors, giving them leeway when it comes to ignoring certain offenses related to cannabis. It instead focuses on allowing the states and local jurisdictions to enforce their own laws pertaining to the matter. It’s possible that this has helped to cut down on some of the federal arrests and sentences.
At present, it’s estimated that the number of people sitting behind bars in California for federal marijuana charges is in the hundreds. Many of these inmates are in prison for 20 years or more for their crimes. It’s a sharp contrast between those arrested for breaking federal law as opposed to state law. Since the enactment of Proposition 64 in California, people convicted of crimes on the state level have been able to file petitions seeking release or a reduction in their sentence. This is great news for some; but, when the only difference between whether or not someone will spend time behind bars for cannabis related charges is based on who’s arresting them for a crime, the disparity seems more than unfair. When one dad gets to go home to his children and another man who’s guilty of the same crime cannot, it’s a tragic failure of the justice system.
Thanks to California’s new marijuana laws, prior convictions for possession are being removed from criminal records.
Within Proposition 64, provisions were made to help those with non-violent marijuana convictions recover from incarceration. In March alone, 2500 requests for reduced penalties were made. While there is no record of the results, prosecutors are typically not fighting the requests, thereby honoring the will of California voters.
“Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” said Rachel Solov of the San Diego District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”
Solov’s office has previous experience dealing with an influx of reduced sentences and prosecutorial reform. Back in 2014, California’s Prop 47 revised sentences for a handful of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor charges. This time, prosecutors compiled a list of those currently incarcerated who could be immediately released, as well as those on probation eligible for early release. They then provided the list to the public defender’s office to expedite the process. According to Solov, San Diego county reduced sentences and/or eliminated convictions for more than 400 cases within the first two months of the passage of Prop 64, more than any other county in the state.
But as with any new legislation, there are kinks to be worked out. Prop 64 is landmark legislation for both marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform, but the legal community has been relatively unprepared for the changes and the number of people seeking help. Attorney Bruce Margolin specializes in cannabis law in Los Angeles, and has witnessed how the legal community has struggled with educating themselves on the new legislation, which was expected to pass months in advance.
“It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”
Groups such as Drug Policy Alliance have offered free legal seminars to help those with marijuana convictions revise their criminal records.
In a state like California, which has enjoyed a notoriously relaxed medical marijuana program for over two decades, marijuana convictions have still occurred. Jay Schlauch has been dealing with a felony charge for cannabis for almost 25 years. Like most felons, it has negatively affected his career and his personal life. With Prop 64’s promise to reduce sentences, Schlauch jumped at the opportunity.
“Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he wondered.
Schlauch was originally sentenced to nine months in prison, but only served about 30 days. He appeared in a Southern California courthouse armed with letters commending him for earning a nursing degree and performing public service for veterans and disabled children. The court’s file for Schlauch’s was patchy due to the age of the case.
A prosecutor who reviewed the file wondered if he would be eligible for a revised sentence. While he was not charged with a gun crime, the prosecutor wondered if this fact deemed him a threat. Schlauch clarified that his weapons were legally purchased and registered, unloaded and secured under lock and key. His only charge was for possessing 8.5 pounds of cannabis with the intent to distribute, according to Margolin.
Judge Orders San Diego District Attorney to Return Life Savings to Civil Asset Forfeiture Victims
If you haven’t kept up with the story of the Slatic family, they’re the ones who had their lives ripped apart when local San Diego law enforcement – in conjunction with the DEA – raided James Slatic’s state-legal cannabis extraction company, Mid-West Distributors. Not only did authorities confiscate all the cash they found during the raid, but they also seized the bank accounts of the entire family, wiping out the life savings of James, his wife and even their two teenage daughters.
For 15 months, the Slatic Family, along with the Institute for Justice, has battled to retrieve the money taken; money taken without any charges being filed. Last week that particular battle came to an end when a judge ordered the San Diego DA to return some $100,000+ to the family.
“It is about time,” said James Slatic when he heard the news.
“We did nothing wrong. My business operated openly and legally for more than two years; we paid taxes and had a retirement program for our 35 employees. No one broke any laws but the District Attorney swooped in and took everything from me and my family, even though they had no connection to my business. Our lives were turned upside down. It felt like we had been robbed – by the police.”
“[The] money that [the] People are holding does not appear to have any evidentiary value on its own, and it cannot be declared contraband without due process,” Judge Tamila E. Ipema, of the San Diego County Superior Court, said in her ruling. “The People’s investigations have been on-going since January 2016 and there is no indication from the People that criminal charges are going to be filed in this case in the near future. The People cannot hold on to [the Slatics’] money indefinitely without having filed any charges against any of them at the present time.”
“It shouldn’t take a team of lawyers and 15 months of legal battles for an innocent family to get their money back from the government,”
said Wesley Hottot, an attorney at the Institute for Justice.
“This case was never about public safety; it was about policing for profit. The Slatics’ ordeal illustrates why the government should not have the power to take people’s property without charging anyone with a crime.”
Yet the practice of civil asset forfeiture continues across the U.S.; unfortunately most of those victims won’t see the outcome the Slatic family got last week. Rulings like the one from Judge Ipema seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
Due process should be more important to law enforcement officials than robbing those who should be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Protect and serve” should never be replaced with “rob and dodge.”
Los Angeles has a homeless epidemic highlighted by downtown’s ‘skid row.’ Marijuana may soon help ease this epidemic.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve a ballot measure that would see medical marijuana tax proceeds go towards the homeless. This proposed tax would aid Los Angeles’ approved nearly $2 billion housing project to help cope with a 12% increase in homelessness the last two years.
The proposed tax would put a
“10% levy on the gross receipts of businesses that produce or distribute marijuana and related products.”
The tax would purportedly generate roughly $130 million a year in tax dollars that would directly go towards helping get the homeless of the streets and into treatment facilities and low-income housing. The measure’s approval needs a 2/3 vote in favor of the tax, so it’s definitely no sure thing.
Detractors of this proposal believe the measure will hurt patients since it will see dispensary prices rise. However, it’s hard to place a moral argument about using cannabis taxes to benefit the less fortunate.
Moreover, California’s upcoming legalization vote this fall truly holds the key to whether or not this tax even matters. The legal medical marijuana alone only would attribute $13 million a year in tax dollars–so legal marijuana would be the biggest donor to the cause.
The state will not be able to collect taxes on that pending legal industry till 2018.