BY JESSICA CASTILLO
Photo by Getty Images
For many people, partaking in cannabis is easier — and less stigmatized — than ever. Thanks to the hard work of activists across the country, more states are decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana at varying levels, and cultural stereotypes against people who use cannabis are rapidly diminishing. But the lingering effects of the War on Drugs continues to impact the millions of Americans who have been charged with cannabis and other low-level drug offenses, and are now living with criminal records that can impact everything from housing to job opportunities.
The people behind National Expungement Week (N.E.W.), which in 2020 will be observed from September 19 - 26, want to change that. Conceptualized by We B.A.K.E.D’s LaTorie Marshall and Cage-Free Repair’s Adam Vine in 2018, N.E.W. is a week of action by community organizers to provide legal relief to those seeking to clear their records of any low-level offenses that might hold them back. “We work to provide resources that will empower our communities to adapt, sustain, survive and create in pursuit of equity,” the N.E.W. team explains on their site. They also stress that their focus is meant to help people with all manner of low-level criminal histories in addition to cannabis or drug offenses.
As Felicia Carbajal, the executive director of The Social Impact Center, a N.E.W. partner, told High Times, “The impact of having a criminal record is far greater than most would assume, especially after the debt has been paid to society. Opportunities for housing, education assistance, and jobs are often the first of 48,000 barriers facing those with a record, preventing these individuals from re-entering society safely and creating a stable life – for themselves and their families.” She added that many of those people are not eligible to vote, which means millions of Americans “are simply not being heard.”
Currently, laws in 48 states mandate that those who have been convicted of a felony are barred from casting a ballot while they are incarcerated. Some states restore voting rights upon release, or upon completion of probation and/or parole, while others demand that those with records pay fines before voting, which many people view as a form of a poll tax. In Florida alone, over 774,000 people are unable to vote simply because they have been convicted of a felony in the past; that conviction can inhibit their ability to secure a job, which means they may not have the means to pay the fine.
In 2018 and 2019, N.E.W. partners emphasized legal clinics, voter registration, and other in-person events across the country, all aimed to help people in their own communities. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, multiple organizations are also hosting virtual events so that those interested can also follow social-distancing guidelines and keep themselves and their community safe. Events are being held by organizations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., given that each state abides by different record clearance laws, and an individual’s legal needs may vary accordingly.
The week is also meant to be a holistic one; to that end, there will also be virtual healing workshops on Zoom by the Social Impact Center, the Tree Femme Collective, and partner groups on Saturday, September 19.
N.E.W. is aiming to keep the effort going year-round, and is urging those who are involved in providing, obtaining, and/or protecting housing assistance, job opportunities, and health services; as well as those who can assist with immigration and DACA status, re-entry after incarceration, and get out the vote efforts to get in contact. The group is also in the process of raising $50,000 through its Show Your Love campaign, which operates through individual donations as well as proceeds from partner brands. You can learn more by visiting the N.E.W. website.