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California cannabis tax program helps communities recover from the war on drugs

A cannabis tax program is giving money to organizations helping bring closure to victims of the War on Drugs, one is using it to expunge criminal records.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A program outlined in Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016 in California, is to give back to those harmed by the War on Drugs. The CalCRG program uses a cannabis excise and cultivation tax to give out $35.5 million in grants to community organizations working with the communities hardest hit by the War on Drugs.

Initiated by President Nixon, the War on Drugs began in the 1970s. In 1994, Nixon’s domestic policy chief was quoted saying, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The policies and tangent rhetoric led to increasing incarceration of people of color, with African Americans being up to 57 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts for drug crimes in 2000.

Now, the United CORE Alliance based in Sacramento is using their $450,000 cut of the CalCRG program to help expunge criminal records — primarily of drug charges and create better job opportunities. The grant will cover approximately 500 expungements and help cover the costs of a paralegal and interns.

“The expungement filing fee, California state law allows counties to charge up to $150 expungement filing fee… and that ends up as an impediment on top of the compounding effects of being low income. Having to take off the day of work to go to court, navigate the process to file the expungement, transportation costs, having that day off work making you short on your bills to take care of your family and healthcare, groceries, all that stuff,” said The United CORE Alliance president Khalil Ferguson.

Sacramento charges $120 to file for expungement, which doesn’t clear an entire record. For those with multiple charges, several filings are needed. Some records still include marijuana crimes that weren’t automatically cleared since they took place in the 70s, 80s and 90s — before electronic filing.

Ferguson explained the cycle of poverty that those with drug records get stuck in. They have difficulty getting higher-paying jobs due to their criminal record, which makes expungement inaccessible. The inability to get the record expunged hinders job opportunities, and it just keeps going. To help tackle this, The United CORE Alliance is working on partnering with local cannabis companies and holding job fairs to get their clients on better career paths in a new, booming industry.

Restitution is another financial barrier to record expungement. The record is almost guaranteed not to get expunged if fees are owed. Ferguson explained that this was another way low-income communities are held back from upward economic mobility — when they are already struggling to take care of themselves and their families, paying restitution isn’t always an option.

“The report done by the Debt Free Justice coalition has shown that our collection of restitution — we spend more on collecting restitution than we actually collect. As an economist, I’m like that’s inefficient as hell,” Furgeson said.

The United CORE Alliance has been outspoken about bill SB 1106, introduced by Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Fransico, which would allow for record clearing despite restitution being owed. The bill wouldn’t alleviate the debt but rather remove its payment as a prerequisite for record expungement.

“Helping people clear their criminal records, be it with expungement or record sealing, is an important strategy to help formerly incarcerated people reenter society successfully. Restitution payments should not keep people in an unending cycle of poverty and hold them back from restarting their lives. That is counterproductive for everyone involved, including victims. SB 1106 will help many in our communities get their lives back on track,” said Senator Wiener in a press release.

CalCRG grants are getting dolled out during a contentious time for cannabis taxes- which brought in $817 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Last week, small-cannabis industry organizers took to the capitol steps calling for a 5% marijuana tax reduction. They claim the current tax rate is pushing small cannabis to their brink, especially BIPOC-owned businesses.

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