In weed-friendly Oregon, there are massive disconnects between the industry and the communities it serves.
Even though recreational cannabis was legalized in 2014, an offense from the days of prohibition can still inhibit offenders' housing prospects, employment opportunities, right to vote, even the ability to serve on their children's PTA. While one sector profits, another continues to suffer lasting generational effects from the War on Drugs, and after six years, little corrective movement has been made.
The Cannabis Workers Coalition is working to change that. The freshly formed social welfare nonprofit is on a mission to mobilize Oregon's weed industry into a vehicle for restorative justice.
The group focuses on three main initiatives: worker protections, industry diversification, and lasting legislative change. It's launching this week with an expungement clinic at NW Cannabis Club, where attendees can have their records cleared on the spot and also access wrap-around services such as public housing assistance, EBT enrollment, legal advice and referrals—and, if they are so inclined, even pick up a marijuana handlers permit.
WW spoke with founding members Savina Monet, Jagger Blaec and Jessica Ortiz about its upcoming "expungement clinic" at NW Cannabis Club, as well as the necessity of taking the movement further, the lack of stoner representation in government, and holding cannabis companies accountable for righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs.
WW: The Expungement Clinic is the Cannabis Workers Coalition's inaugural event. Why choose this platform as your public introduction?
Jessica Ortiz: I think the most important thing, especially as women of color ourselves, is that we wanted a safe place for people to see that they have allies and a place where they can gather, acquire information, and get educated on the next steps. This really hits home for me because I have family members that have paid the price for their involvement and use of cannabis. I want people to know that there is a community trying to make a change.
Savina Monet: What we're trying to do is just get as many people from the community there, especially the underserved community that has higher barriers of entry for the cannabis industry. And we want to serve them as well as we can so that when they leave the clinic, they feel more confident to either join the cannabis industry or even go and reapply for housing now that they don't have a conviction holding them back.
What makes expungement clinics such as this so critical to creating equity in the cannabis community?
Monet: Expungement means different things in different states, but for Oregon what it means is to completely erase or seal your record, and that removes it from public and private databases. Many people that have past convictions are unable to vote.
Ortiz: And if you're a parent with marijuana conviction your position as a parent can be really difficult. Kids or visitation rights can be taken away from you.
Jagger Blaec: This is just one event, but this is the stuff that we're going to be doing: breaking down gatekeeping and building access.
Why do you think the state has been so slow to implement broad restorative justice initiatives?
Blaec: White supremacy.
Monet: It's a systemic issue. It's not just cannabis. When it's white people in charge, it takes so much longer because there's no urgency behind a lot of the issues that you're trying to dismantle.
Ortiz: When the people you're representing aren't the people in charge, that creates a barrier to empathy and understanding because you don't have your own experience, and if you don't have anyone around you who uses cannabis and if you don't see the benefits of it, then it's so easy for stereotypes and myths and misconceptions to really seem super real.
Is that dearth of representation what led you to found the Cannabis Workers Coalition?
Monet: I first started thinking about unionizing last year. Then, the same month that the murder of George Floyd happened, one of our good friends [event partner Raina Casey of the Oregon Handlers Fund] had posted a comment saying, "Hey, how about we all go $100 in for marijuana workers permits for people who can't afford it?" And that was just revolutionary but also so easy for people to do. Giving a voice and empowerment to [workers], it needs to be continuous—asking the tough questions like, "Are you doing superficial things that look good on social media, or are you doing the hard work behind the scenes?" Let's talk about blind hiring practices. Let's talk about what you don't even know because you don't have an HR department. There are so many resources that are lacking in the cannabis space itself. We're just trying to be that bridge.
Your position as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit is unique in that it can act as both a social welfare organization and a labor union. How exactly does that balance benefit both worker and business members?
Monet: As a nonprofit, we are able to do a lot of things that people would think are only reserved for labor unions. We can help with collective bargaining and employee representation. We can stay on as a mediator during certain meetings. We're able to arm the workers with education so they know their rights. If the owners want to do any discriminatory practices, then the employees have a right to strike. For worker members, we're definitely free. We are taking from the labor-union model where instead of having employees pay dues for their rights, we're shifting it to the employers paying monthly dues to show that they're dedicating themselves to their employees. And in this business, where money seems to be the main communicator, that's big.
GO: The Cannabis Workers Coalition's walk-in expungement clinic is at the Northwest Cannabis Club, 1195 SE Powell Blvd., on Friday, Sept. 18. Noon-6 pm. See more information at cannabisworkerscoalition.org.