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The Cannabis Industry Has To Make Sure It Has ‘In Place The Mechanisms To Help People Who Have Suffered From Cannabis Convictions’

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The liberalisation of cannabis laws across the globe has been gathering pace over the last few years, with the likes of Spain, Japan, Thailand and Ukraine all exploring new initiatives in the past few weeks alone.

As legalisation and decriminalisation drives forward, many of those who have suffered at the hands of prohibition continue to be left behind.

Ahead of Cannabis Europa London 2022, taking place on between June 28 -29, BusinessCann spoke to Mary Bailey, Managing Director at the Last Prisoner Project and Norman L. Reimer, Global CEO of Fair Trials to discuss the ongoing injustices brought about by cannabis prohibition, and what their organisations are doing to tackle them.

Hi Mary and Norman, thanks for joining us, could you start by telling our readers a little about your respective organisations and your roles within them?

Mary – Certainly, the Last Prisoner Project is a US-based national nonprofit that operates at the intersection of cannabis and criminal justice reform. 

While our legal and reentry departments provide critically needed direct support to our incarcerated and returning constituents around the country, the ultimate goal of our work is policy change, so that people do not continue to be criminalised for cannabis activity. 

We feel that anybody who is able to benefit from the legalisation of cannabis will also feel a moral imperative to offer support for those who’ve been negatively impacted by the criminalisation of cannabis. I personally lead our development team and I manage our corporate partnerships. But my favourite aspect of doing this work is connecting directly with our constituents and their families.

Norman – I’m the Global CEO of Fair Trials, which is an international criminal justice watchdog that works to expose, challenge and remedy systemic injustice in criminal legal systems.

Our offices are in the UK and in the EU, based in Brussels. We have offices in the United States, and we also have a presence in Latin America. And if I had to sum up what our main goal is, it’s to have criminal legal systems that are used with the utmost restraint. We should resort to the criminal law and the power to prosecute, which I consider to be the most awesome use of state power short of warfare, as little as possible and only when absolutely necessary. 

And when we use it, we should use it with fairness, equity and humanity and respect for the rights and dignity of everybody. I came to this position after being with the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers as their executive director for 15 years where we got to work with the Last Prisoner Project. 

Before that, for more than 20 years, I was a practising criminal defence lawyer, and proud of it and loved it every single day that I was able to stand with somebody, and the will of a court.

Here in the UK, we are reportedly seeing the highest level of drug use in Western Europe, and have seen a five-fold increase in cannabis use since the Misuse of Drugs Act was brought in, while 16% of the prison population is now in for a drug offence. As a starting point and question to you both, how does this compare with the countries you operate in?

Norman – I’ll start off by saying the last data that I’ve seen that’s been put out by the European Union would indicate that the UK is right about sort of average point. 

There are some countries that are higher, there are some that are lower. But the real important point I want to make, first of all, is that you can’t overestimate the impact of these prosecutions, the negative impact on people, on their families and communities. 

Mary – I’d like to note too, that here in the US, we know that the criminalisation of cannabis directly impacts communities of colour. People of colour are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis, even though everybody is using cannabis at the same level. So it’s just really such a travesty that communities of colour are being negatively impacted more.

Norman – If I could just pick up on that, one of the partners that Fair Trials has been privileged to work with in the UK is a group called Release

They’ve put out a number of wonderful reports, including one called Regulating Right, Repairing Wrongs, and to Mary’s exact point they found that the stop and searches that take place so rampantly, way disproportionately impact minorities. Overall, minorities were 4.1 times more likely to be stopped. And for black people, it was 8.9 times more likely. 

I think the big point here is that while criminalisation of the use of a substance impacts everybody and all of society negatively, it doesn’t prevent people from using it. It doesn’t deal with underlying mental health issues. But what it does do for sure is disproportionately impact racialised, marginalised, poorer communities, and that’s an irrefutable fact.

Throughout your careers, have you seen any signs of a correlation between the severity of drug laws and levels of enforcement, and drug use?

Norman – There was a report done by the Pew Foundation, where they studied the impact of punishment on drug use, and found that there was no correlation. They looked at arrests, they looked at drug overdoses, they looked at a number of factors between places where there was a high degree of prosecution versus a low degree of prosecution and had no impact.

All the data that has ever been aggregated, has failed to establish that punishment stops people from using any kind of a controlled substance.

Mary – I think it’s also very important to note that, in my experience there are many people that have received life sentences for very small amounts of cannabis, particularly states in the South, which have such strict laws. 

There’s a third strike law. So if it’s your third strike, you have life without the option of parole. I’ve worked with several people who have received life sentences for less than $20 of cannabis, very, very miniscule amounts of cannabis, and yet they’re incarcerated for the rest of their lives. So it’s important to note that the strict penalties do not match the crimes in a lot of these situations.

To pull on that thread, could you explain the wide ranging impact a drug conviction, even for very minor offenses, can have on people’s lives?

Mary – The collateral consequences of a cannabis conviction run so deep. Families are torn apart. There are children that are growing up without a member of their family. Those children are now living in single parent households and finances are tight. 

When someone returns to society after being incarcerated for cannabis, not only are they rebuilding family ties and healing from being separated from family members, then they have to deal with the legalities. 

So having a felony cannabis conviction on your record can affect being able to get student loans, housing opportunities, employment. It can be incredibly difficult to obtain quality, viable employment with cannabis convictions on your record, not to mention social services such as food stamps, and other government support. 

I’ve recently worked with one of our constituents who has really gone above and beyond to rebuild his life in the last three years since he’s been released. He’s married, he’s got multiple children, he started a very successful plumbing business. 

But unfortunately, because of his prior federal felony conviction, he’s not able to obtain a normal business loan. And so this has placed a lot of pressure on his business alone. Those are some of the collateral consequences of a cannabis conviction.

Norman – Mary has covered that beautifully, but let’s not also fail to underscore the impact on people who are immigrants. In many countries, a conviction for this kind of an offence could lead to exclusion or deportation, removal from the country.

The conviction can require them to be removed to a country that they may have never even lived in. They may have come as an infant. One cannot overstate the cascading consequences of prohibition, and criminalisation.

And what’s the impact on those who may have been deported to their ‘home countries’? What are their opportunities like when they return there?

Norman – Well, first of all, they may be returning to a place where they’re in danger. They may be returning to a place where they don’t even speak the language. 

I’m not aware of any studies that have been done, but from having been in practice I know of individual cases of people who literally were removed to countries that they knew nothing of, they knew no one. They were complete strangers in a strange land.

Mary – We have a constituent who served over 13 years in prison for a nonviolent cannabis charge. Once she was released, she was immediately placed in ICE custody, and eventually deported to Jamaica, where she had not livedsince she was a teenager. 

She’d been living in America for over 30 years. Her children all lived in America. And so she’s been over the last eight months trying to rebuild her life in Jamaica in a country where she doesn’t have any family anymore. 

We as an organisation have been doing our best to help support her through grants and making connections with other nonprofits and in that area, but seeing these negative effects on people once they’re released, being deported, it’s heart wrenching.

Liberalisation towards the laws surrounding cannabis use has been growing steadily over the past few years, but so has the technology and techniques used to enforce it. In your view, have things gotten better or worse in the last 5 years?

Norman – Of course, in those places where you’ve had decriminalisation or legalisation, you’re taking away a tool that has been used to abuse certain communities, and there’s no question about that. 

Enforcement has been disproportionately levelled against minority communities, almost universally. But now we have this artificial intelligence, or machine learning systems. What that is doing is it is taking the problem of disproportionate or disparate policing and it’s baking it into the system in a way that affects a person at every stage of the process. 

It helps to define where police will deploy their resources, and then it will disproportionately impact those who have been subjected to over-policing. And there is no question that whether it’s intentional or unintentional, AI perpetuates racism. 

Inevitably, whether they’re using it to determine where to police, whether or not to release somebody while the case is pending, whether or not to sentence them to jail, or how long to put them on supervision, when they use these predictive tools that are based on people’s history that are impacted by disproportionate policing practices to begin with, you have a far far greater negative impact on certain communities.

So we’ve covered many of the problems, let’s have a look at solutions. In the areas where cannabis has been legalised or decriminalised, what is being done to help those with historic convictions?

Mary – When we created the Last Prison Project, we did a needs analysis of what people really need to get back on their feet when returning to society, and what we saw time and time again is people need resources, mainly financing. 

So we’ve created a grant programme where we offer financial grants for people as they’re getting back on their feet. So this can cover housing or education needs that they have for their children. So that’s one way of helping people really rebuild their lives is through our grant programme. 

And then we also offer grants to not just returning citizens, but also the children of currently incarcerated prisoners. Most of the prisoners that I work with are parents with two to four children. Now, all of those children are living in single parent households for the most part, so those children and their caretakers are also eligible for these grants.

To date, we’ve dispersed over $1.5 million in grants to directly impacted folks. And that’s just one step in the right direction of really offering resources and support to people who desperately need them.

Norman – What Mary and what LPP is doing is a vital service to individuals. But from a systemic standpoint, our big concern is that as laws get liberalised as the substance gets decriminalised, or fully legalised for recreational use, we cannot leave behind the people who have borne the burden of prohibition. 

The first bucket that must be dealt with are people who are still in jail. And unfortunately, when these laws change, they often don’t get changed retroactively. 

I can’t think of a greater offence to justice than to say that as of X day, it’s no longer illegal to use, sell, market, merchandise this product, but if you did it before then you’re going to stay in jail. 

It’s not just the jail time, we talked about all the consequences. I’m totally supportive of the industry as it grows and matures and becomes a hugely profitable opportunity for people, but the industry has to be willing to make sure that we have in place the mechanisms to help people who have suffered from convictions, either still suffering in jail or suffering with the records. 

We’ve got to have laws that provide for expungement of records, we’ve got to get rid of all these collateral consequences that people are living with, or clear the record so that they don’t have those consequences. And that’s why I’m so excited about the work that we’re trying to do with LPP. 

We’re trying to get in a position to launch a global Cannabis Justice Initiative that’s going to be modelled on a programme that LPP is doing with NACDL, which I was proud to be a part of at its inception. This is where we really need to be thinking about restoring justice to those who have suffered as a result of prohibition. 

For countries who might be considering a move towards legalisation or decriminalisation, is there anywhere they should look to for a workable model to follow?

Norman – In the United States we’ve got a really Motley situation. The federal government has not done anything about the marijuana laws federally, it’s still considered the highest class controlled substance. 

But the states that have legalised, some have done a better job than others. New York has done a pretty good job with their law. Now, it hasn’t been fully implemented yet. But it has really robust expungement provisions that are going to be automated and handled automatically by the courts. 

So people don’t individually have to make applications which means they need lawyers, and sometimes they don’t have access to lawyers. But it’s really important as the reform movement moves forward to be thinking about these things as early as possible. 

That’s why the New York law seems to be a pretty good one because the advocates were thinking about it right at the beginning. In contrast in California there’s a huge backlog in terms of getting these expungements done. And as I said countries that are willing to do this when they legalise they’ve got to provide retroactive relief.

One more thing I’d like to add is that it is not an easy task, and that’s another reason why we were hoping to get a project launched to help people as legalisation spreads. 

A person might be in prison today for a theft, but the reason they’re in prison is not because of their theft, it’s because they had prior marijuana convictions. They wouldn’t be in prison if it weren’t for that. 

So, we’ve got to find all the people that need relief, and then we’ve got to figure out a way to get them relief. And if the law doesn’t provide for automatic relief, just like the project in the US that NACDL is doing with LPP, we’ve got to see exactly what the relief mechanisms are, and get clemency petitions submitted, get them commutations, get them pardons.

That’s what we’re trying to do. And the kind of project that we’re looking to launch will rely very, very heavily on volunteer lawyers. We know that there are countless lawyers that get tremendous satisfaction out of providing this kind of help for clients. We’ve just got to get the infrastructure up, then we can recruit, and we can train the lawyers in order to provide this kind of help that people need.

Mary – When we founded LLP, Norm was one of the very first people that I met doing this work. And so working with Norm to build the Cannabis Justice Initiative from the ground up, has been transformational. 

The main point of that project is matching pro bono attorneys with currently incarcerated cannabis prisoners. Those attorneys help file clemency petitions and compassionate release petitions in the hopes that those cannabis prisoners will be released. 

Now that norm is global CEO of Fair Trials, it’s a wonderful opportunity for him and his team to replicate this programme that he helped build in the US on a global level. 

It’s really a monumental project, and we’re just so excited to have the opportunity to be at Cannabis Europa, and to connect with European and international cannabis companies who will have the opportunity to get on board and support a monumental project like this.

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