Written by: Eric Danville
California Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Kamala Harris recently joined forces with U.S. House Judiciary chair, Jerry Nadler, D-NY, to propose the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE). The act would effectively decriminalize cannabis on the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act.
In addition to lowering the penalties for cannabis possession, MORE proposes a 5% tax on cannabis products. Part of that revenue will be diverted to programs designed to help communities affected by cannabis criminalization. The act would do so by vacating the records of non-violent cannabis offenders; making sure that immigrants cannot be deported or denied citizenship for non-violent cannabis-related offenses; and prohibits denial of public benefits (including housing) based solely on prior cannabis use or possession.
Despite the fact that medical cannabis currently enjoys legal status in 33 states plus the District of Columbia, penalties for use still exist due to federal illegality. What is sad is when a person arrested for cannabis use is a mother.
According to the Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy center, The Sentencing Project, “Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-five percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 14% of men in prison; 26% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 17% among incarcerated men.”
While there are far more men in prisons in the U.S., “the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980,” finds the Sentencing Project’s Incarceration of Women and Girls report, released in June 2019. In fact, the rates of female incarceration is eight times higher than it was four decades ago.
The report also finds that “More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.”
As demonstrated in several high-profile cases, the effect of drug laws regarding cannabis is often more destructive than cannabis itself—especially for families.
The Smoking Gun
In March 2015, Shona Banda, a licensed massage therapist, lost her 11-year-old son to Child Protective Services (CPS) after he revealed during a drug education presentation at school that his mother uses cannabis to treat Crohn’s Disease.
Banda and her son live in Kansas, one of the few remaining states in the U.S. that does not allow the use of cannabis for medical conditions. As such, the school contacted the police, who interviewed Banda, and were later granted a warrant to search her home where they found “over a pound” of cannabis, 2 ounces of THC oil, vaporizers, pipes and other paraphernalia.
Banda faced an almost inconceivable 30 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute (based on the amount of cannabis she had), manufacturing THC (for extracting the oil), drug possession, and child endangerment. Her son was removed from her custody and placed with her ex-husband.
She used every legal avenue available to her to resolve her case. After trying to get the case dismissed on Fourth Amendment grounds, claiming the search warrant was based on an interview with her son conducted without parental consent, Banda filed a lawsuit against the school, the local police department, and the state of Kansas, and its Governor Sam Brownback. Shona eventually pleaded “no contest” to possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to manufacture, and was sentenced to probation. She was able to serve while living in Washington State, where both medical and adult use cannabis are legal.
Cannabis’ legal status won’t necessarily protect users, though. In 2014, police called to the home of California residents Shawnee Anderson and Aaron Hillyer about a non-physical domestic dispute found packets of cannabis and smoked joints in the couple’s home. The cannabis was prescribed to Anderson for anxiety and depression, and to Hillyer for anxiety and chronic pain. Both had valid prescriptions and their medical cannabis cards.
Officers decided that the presence and use of cannabis in their own home constituted a risk to the child who was taken from the pair and spent almost two weeks in government care. Anderson and Hillyer each spent five days in jail. The criminal charges filed against them were dropped, but they were still summoned to family court, which again argued that the couple’s medical cannabis use was a risk to their son.
A Napa County judge agreed with the child welfare agency in the case. That ruling was overturned the following year, and Anderson and Hillyer’s custody of their son was restored.
Help Is Available
Senator Harris’ move to decriminalize cannabis, and expunge cannabis related offenses is not new. There are several groups working to provide emotional, economic, and legal assistance to those most affected by cannabis criminalization.
National Bail Out
National Bail Out is a network of activists, lawyers and social justice warriors who are committed to building equity for communities of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Through events like Mama’s Day Bail Outs, a Mother’s Day themed effort to provide economic security and independence, and the use of the hashtag #FreeBlackMamas, the group seeks to eliminate the financial inequality of women and caregivers; especially as they relate to the ability to afford bail money in order to stay out of jail before trial dates.
Los Angeles-based Cage-Free Cannabis (CFC) attacks the inequalities created by the War on Drugs on three fronts. The first is repairative, and comes in the form of expunging criminal records. The second focuses on economic activism through advocating that communities of color be well-represented in the growing legal cannabis industry, only 1% of which is currently owned by black or Latinx entrepreneurs, respectively. And the third focuses on the ecological, creating a legal cannabis industry that is sustainable and, well, more green.
CFC’s non-profit wing, Cage-Free Repair, offers financial and logistical support to organizations in Los Angeles with whom they share common goals, including: gang member outreach and intervention programs, and live events such as Expungement Week and The Re-Entry Fair, which offers support and social empowerment for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families.
The Clean Slate Act
The Clean Slate Act is a bi-partisan effort introduced by representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-DE, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-PA. The act, which is still in committee at press time, aims to seal the criminal records of those convicted of nonviolent cannabis related offenses, some automatically and some by request.
The act would encourage states to automatically seal the records of those individuals who have completed their sentences. Although this would not apply to those convicted of treason, terror-related offenses, or convicted sex offenders. Individuals convicted of cannabis related offenses prior to The Clean Slate Act takes effect and who have met certain conditions can request that their records be sealed one year after they complete their sentences.
The mercurial nature of the letter and the spirit of cannabis legislation proves the old adage that “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” It’s vital that responsible cannabis consumers keep aware of all the laws involving cannabis…not just those that afford you the freedom to use the drug responsibly, but those that can also severely infringe upon your rights to establish and maintain a family, gainful employment, and your own personal freedom.