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Hustle & Grow: How Former Convicts Can Get a Second Chance in Legal Weed

A look inside the only industry where a record is a badge of honor.

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A criminal record can haunt you for the rest of your life, even if you never spent a day behind bars. Catch a conviction, and say goodbye to a home mortgage or student loans. Possibly say goodbye to custody over your children. If you're an immigrant, a record can be a surefire way to get deported.

And, of course, with a criminal history, you can kiss decent job openings goodbye, too. Unless, that is, you're looking for work in America's fledgling cannabis industry — and your convictions were only for weed.

Regardless of the cannabis community's wild successes over the past several years, in 2016, U.S. police arrested 574,641 people for mere marijuana possession. That figure exceeds the number of arrests for murder, assault, rape, and robbery combined. Prohibition keeps shattering lives and stripping otherwise law-abiding individuals of opportunities, even though 30 states and the District of Columbia have significantly reformed their cannabis laws.

Fortunately, in states with recreational cannabis, convictions for herb don't necessarily carry the same professional stigma that they used to. Although some actors in recently-legal Massachusetts tried to bar ex-convicts from the industry, other states, such as Colorado, have implemented policies to ignore non-violent cannabis offenses for pot shop employees and owners. Other states, like Washington, use a point-based system for determining whether someone's record blocks them from entering the industry.

Still other states go further. In Maine, cannabis patients (and now recreational consumers) are considered a protected class, so non-federal employees cannot be terminated for enjoying a joint on their own private time.

In California, some municipalities such as Los Angeles and Oakland will prioritize non-violent cannabis convicts for a dispensary or retail licenses, particularly if those licenses are for businesses in low-income neighborhoods. That's not a bad deal in a $9 billion-plus industry with enough employees to outnumber the nation's dental hygienists.

Social equity programs such as those in California are especially corrective, as ethnic minorities from low-income neighborhoods have been disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system and War on Drugs. As you read this, black and Latinx Americans are still unfairly arrested at much, much higher rates than white folks for smoking the same dope.

Have Your Cake, and Eat It, Too

Cooking is a part of Rudy Sta Ana's soul, but a charge he faced over a decade ago blocked him from a conventional culinary career. During a phone call with MERRY JANE, he said prohibition, ironically, forced him into California's cannabis industry.

"I had no choice," he said. "I couldn't get a job elsewhere."

In the 2000s, police stopped Sta Ana while he was cruising through Rowland Heights in L.A. County. "The area was infested with Asian gang members," he said. "So the cops assumed I was a gang member, or something like that."

A search of Sta Ana's car discovered a sandwich bag with stems, seeds, and shake totaling a measly 1.5 grams. However, that bowl's worth of headache was enough for the courts to stick him with a possession charge.

"That charge followed me around" for years, he recounted. "It barred me from getting a good job, like one with insurance and pay raises." It also got him kicked out of his father's home, ostracized by a conservative Filipino family that viewed cannabis as a dangerous, shameful drug.

Rudy Sta Ana, pictured above

With few options available, Sta Ana turned to California's pot shops, where he worked as a budtender for a while. Eight years ago, he got his record expunged, too. Today, he owns and manages his own licensed cannabis company, Cannabis Catered Events, which serves infused fusion dishes to Cali's canna-elite. His family has also come around to embrace his newfound vocation — and cannabis' medicinal properties.

"I love cooking, and I love weed, so I figured why not put them together?"

Granting Second Chances

Some of prohibition's survivors weren't pushed into the industry. Some of them founded it, and — in Virgil Grant's case — never left, despite catching a federal case and serving over eight years in prison.

Grant may be one of the most well-known cannabis convicts to excel in the industry. He started out slinging weed to Tupac and Dr. Dre back in the 1990s, then got busted in 1997 and 1998 with two respective stints in jail. In 2004, he went legit with his own state-licensed dispensary, Holistic Caregivers. In 2008, an edible found at the scene of an accident led investigators back to Holistic Caregivers. Dozens of trumped-up charges later, courts seized his assets and sentenced him to six years in federal prison. He got out in five.

"The federal government had taken everything, and I mean everything, except for my licenses," said Grant. "When I came home, I didn't have a dime in my pocket."

Even with three separate sentences under his belt, his record didn't affect his ability to get up and running again. When he finally raised the capital, he rebranded his business to California Cannabis, currently operating in three locations in the Los Angeles area. Federal prison didn't hurt his standing within the industry, either.

"They embraced me," he said about his return. "I was embraced with open arms by everybody."

Virgil Grant, pictured above

Today, Grant also runs the California Minority Alliance with his longtime friend Donnie Anderson. Together, they've pushed to ensure other cannabis convicts have an equal shot at breaking into the weed industry. Part of this effort includes California's social equity programs, which prioritize cannabis licensing for non-violent convicts who reside in disenfranchised neighborhoods. CMA also worked to include expungements for non-violent cannabis convictions in Prop 64, the state's recreational cannabis bill. Expungements would clear these charges from a person's record, but so far only San Francisco and San Diego counties have actively pursued wholesale expungements. Furthermore, state expungement programs only work for state or local charges. Federal convictions cannot be removed under these programs.

Peripheral Vision

Working in the cannabis industry doesn't always mean getting permission from the state to handle the plant directly. Much of the industry's work occurs outside of special licenses. Companies that produce fertilizers, lighting and watering systems, and packaging are essential components of the industry, too.

Jesse Fisher, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, currently works in the cannabis auxiliary as a sales rep for Sohum Living Soils. Sohum, naturally, caters to the Centennial State's permitted cannabis grows. Previously, he had worked for dispensaries, despite his record carrying a cultivation charge from 2002.

Fisher's trouble began just two years after the state passed its medical marijuana law, Amendment 20. Back then, a windstorm blew over his backyard greenhouse, exposing the plants he'd been growing for himself. In a sit-down interview with MERRY JANE, he said his plants were stolen by someone in his neighborhood. One thing led to another, and the cops paid him a visit.

He initially faced several felony charges, but he lucked out. At the time, the El Paso County court had suffered a shortage of public defenders. Because he was constitutionally entitled to legal representation, the court hired a private attorney to take his case. The felonies got knocked down to misdemeanors, partially due to Fisher's affirmative medical defense in court.

"I had medical paperwork," he said. "So I asked the court, do I owe you anything? And they said, 'No.'"

Instead of handing down a sentence, the court told Fisher to get his medical card. With a grin, he said he told them, "I will." And he did.

Jesse Fisher, pictured above

Eventually Fisher would like to launch his own extraction company. He admits breaking into Colorado's scene is tough these days. Not because of his past charges, but because business has gotten incredibly competitive in the first state to go recreational.

"I've been thinking of starting [my extraction business] in another state, one that just got legal," he said.

If cannabis regulations in places like California, Colorado, or Washington are any indication, Fisher's record shouldn't be much of an issue in a newly legalized state, either.

How to Get a Weed Job with a Weed Offense

Typically, the hiring process is left entirely to the employer. There are no laws that prevent an employer from hiring someone with a non-violent cannabis record, but federal agencies will usually disqualify candidates with pot offenses due to current policies.

First, since cannabis is becoming more mainstream with each day, it makes sense to get your record expunged, if you can. Contact an attorney to walk you through this process, or attend a local expungement clinic if they're available in your area.

Second, if you want a job at the forefront of the weed industry and you can't get your record cleared, do not try to hide your offense. A standard background check, which any employer can order during the hiring process, will turn up anything that hasn't been sealed or expunged by a court. Neglecting to mention it could harm your chances of getting in.

California Cannabis's Virgil Grant, who's done his fair share of hiring over the years, said it's best to be upfront about the record. But leave it off the resume. Instead, save it for the first interview, "where the applicant can have a personal dialogue with the employer."

During that dialogue, be honest about what happened, and share only what's relevant. Most folks in the cannabis community understand the laws were — and in many cases still are — unjust.

Third, seek out companies that actively hire candidates with prior non-violent cannabis convictions. Lowell Herb Co., based in California, recently rented a billboard near two penitentiaries: Twin Towers Correctional Facility and Men's Central Prison, both in L.A. County. They also took out print, radio, and TV ads promoting the company's new jobs initiative, which assesses candidates with non-violent cannabis offenses as they would any other candidate. Since the billboard went up, the company has received hundreds of applications — per day.

"It's about second chances," Lowell Herb Co.'s CEO, David Elias, told MERRY JANE. "There are people right now that have been convicted for something that, today, would be considered a non-event. We're just trying to equalize job opportunities for those individuals."

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