Many states that have decided to regulate marijuana bar ex-offenders with drug convictions from maintaining employment within the marijuana industry. Proponents of those bans hold that they are necessary to legitimize the budding new industry and to help prevent illegal sales. However, by embracing all comers, and allowing the industry to employ even those with prior drug-related offenses, states can bolster their economies, promote employment among the formerly incarcerated, all the while maturing this only recently regulated industry.
The retail and medical marijuana markets will create more than a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, while manufacturing jobs are slowly but continuously declining — by 2024 manufacturing jobs are expected to decline by 814,000. Allowing ex-offenders to work as owners, operators and employees in marijuana businesses is beneficial to both individuals re-entering society and businesses seeking employees with specific skills.
Experience is a critical requirement when applying for a job, and individuals who have marijuana-based convictions, specifically for cultivation, have invaluable knowledge. Decriminalizing a product, then building businesses to grow and sell that product has created a unique conundrum. Specifically, those who refrained from marijuana cultivation or use because of prohibitive laws know less about the product, and vice versa.
As Anne McLellan, chair of Canada’s Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, stated, “There’s an awful lot of expertise that’s outside the legal system right now and you wouldn’t want to lose all that.”
Additionally, marijuana prohibition has disproportionately hurt minority communities, and this ban on hiring ex-offenders with marijuana convictions would continue to do so. The ACLU has reported that while “marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”
Now, regulatory schemes in states where marijuana has been legalized have made it difficult or impossible for offenders with marijuana convictions to become licensed retail operators. That results in wealthy entrepreneurs, who are often white men, monopolizing the industry while ex-offenders — largely people of color — are denied opportunities.
Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “We want people who were formerly involved in cannabis to stay involved in cannabis. … That would help them build a future for them and their families.”
By barring ex-offenders from working in the retail market based on arrests or convictions of non-violent drug offenses only continues the racism associated with prohibition.
Opponents of allowing people with drug-related convictions to enter marijuana related employment argue that this new industry must be perceived as legitimate rather than an odd extension of the black market. However, national polling shows that a vast majority of Americans already lend credibility to regulating marijuana and are in favor of doing so. In fact, state officials in Colorado reported that 70 percent of the estimated demand for marijuana is being met by the legal market. Making employment in the legal market more accessible, it follows that involvement in the black market would proportionately decrease, further validating legal marijuana businesses.
Gathering a wide range of offender re-entry and marijuana business information, Massachusetts has developed regulations that should become a model for the rest of the country. The state legislature passed legislation to give priority review to people in communities that have been disproportionately affected by the enforcement of former marijuana laws. Specifically, business applicants who are applying for licenses will be eligible for special review if at least 51 percent of employees have a prior drug-related conviction.
The Massachusetts framework allows private employers the autonomy to choose to support re-entering ex-offenders and allows those with prior drug-related convictions applying for jobs to lend their specialized knowledge to a legal business.