Even in pandemic lockdown, Seattle lines up for legal weed—out the door and down the street in Capitol Hill's shops. It'll be no different on Monday, April 20—aka 4/20, the pot-smoking holiday (coined for either a police code or an inside joke, per High Times). But even as Washington state considers the sale of marijuana products essential, 4/20 isn't straight-up fun for everyone.
Though legalization started in December 2012, until last year there were still Washington residents with convictions for the very activity that was now allowed: possession of one ounce of bud. Governor Inslee's Marijuana Justice Initiative, launched last year, offered pardons for those offenses—with stipulations. Like the fact that offenders had to have an otherwise clean record and be over 21 when he offense occurred.
"It wasn't automatic, people had to be proactive" to get the pardon, says Alison Holcomb, political director of American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. That meant people needed a little legal know-how; plus offenders still had to report convictions on job, housing, and loan applications. In some cases the court records of the original process remain, available in searches by employers or agencies. Last year, the legislature passed SB 5605, making it possible for 68,000 Washingtonians to vacate their conviction, a more complete scrub of the records than a pardon. Still, the offender must make a formal court motion.
That extra baggage is carried disproportionately by people of color. In 2013, an ACLU report noted that "on average, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person"—even though there's no difference in use of the substance. And then there's the felony issue; Joy Hollingsworth, whose farm is the first Black-owned weed-growing acreage to be licensed in the country, says, "We know the war on drugs. If you were Black you might get a felony, but if you were white, you might get a misdemeanor." ACLU data backs that up too—and felonies carry even deeper repercussions and no pardons offered.
During the Covid-19 crisis, when prison populations are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, Inslee has announced the release of 1,100 inmates in the state system; since only those with non-violent offenses are eligible, some might be cannabis crimes. But it's difficult to determine just how many current inmates across the state are serving time for weed-related issues; King Country's jail simply uses the category "drugs" in its report of the detention population.
Equity issues reach far beyond the criminal justice system, says Holcomb; once weed got legal, there was a whole new uneven playing field. "You saw the inequality of law enforcement carry over to who had opportunity under the new framework," she says. Not one of Seattle's cannabis stores is Black-owned.
"You can see Black people twirling a sign or selling cannabis behind the counter, but not having ownership," says Hollingsworth. Her Central District family raises product that's sold wholesale to other packagers and producers. Since 2014, the plant has sparked more than $3 billion in sales in the state, meaning there's lot of money being made.
Another bill from the legislature, this session's HB 2870, aims to address the issue, setting aside retail licenses for women and people of color; "I think it's gonna help tremendously," says Hollingsworth. Still, her 2020 plan to consult with Black-owned marijuana businesses has been stymied by the coronavirus; she'd hoped to show other states how to use HB 2970 as a blueprint. "I couldn't wait to go to the national level. 2020 was going to be our breakout year," she says.
Hollingsworth and her brother head up their farm in Shelton in the rural south end of the Olympic Peninsula; the location still surprises her. "What are some Black folks doing in Shelton?" she laughs. But Mason County was very receptive to the new industry after the region recently lost lumber jobs, and the farm now boasts 30,000 feet of canopy space. The location, she notes wryly, is "a stone's throw away from the Shelton prison."