In a Denver bar, "Winston" drains a beer and explains how he's basically a good guy.
Had a job, paid taxes, let a friend who was getting beat up by her man stay with him, he says.
But today he shakes his head as he tells how his life's in the gutter, due to how the cops did a welfare check on that beat-up friend and searched "Winston's" house. They found coke, ecstasy, guns and a pile of mushrooms the size of a rolled-up sleeping bag.
"I've never hurt anyone, I'm not a bad person," he shrugs, "I just like to have a little fun."
"Winston" says all the charges were dropped except the mushrooms, which he admits he was selling. He pled guilty.
For the past few months, "Winston" says his record as a non-violent drug seller is really hurting him.
"I couldn't even get a job at Jimmy John's," he says. Uber. Construction. "There's nowhere that doesn't do a background check."
And that hurts not just guys like Winston, but all of society. He's not pulling his weight, not contributing, he's couchsurfing and living on the hemp farm where he's started work — cannabis being one of the few jobs that understands a drug selling charge isn't the sign of a bad person because the whole point of the industry is to sell drugs.
While the Drug War has been a 50-year shit sandwich for all of us, it's hurt some towns and groups worse than others. Rosalie Flores, for example, grew up in Albuquerque in the 90s, where "every" family she knew was affected by the Drug War — a friend caught up in gang violence and gunned down, a gang war for territory in her neighborhood, and "smart, witty, completely capable individuals" imprisoned.
"I have more friends that have been affected by the criminal justice system than went to college," she says. "There were not a lot of opportunities. The schools weren't functioning. … Selling drugs was an economic opportunity."
Now, Flores works as a cannabis consultant in Colorado.
But ganjapreneurs often ignore how unfair it is that they're earning a decent living selling drugs while the Drug War keeps on chewing up people — black and brown especially — for selling drugs.
So now Flores is one of many people looking to "bridge the gap between communities most impacted by the war on drugs and the cannabis industry." Flores is lead organizer of the second National Expungement Week, starting Sept. 21.
Expungement is a fancy way to say seal your criminal record, or take an eraser to it; shredding it and tossing it in the sea.
Last year, 16 cities participated in the week. There are events, lectures, lawyers available. Rosalie's group says last year they got 298 people's records cleared and sealed. They claim a $3 million public benefit — because no more probation and more dudes with jobs.
Again — clearing criminal records helps all of us, because guys like "Winston" can go back to working, contributing.
This year, events will happen in 30 cities. Denver's is at Cross Purposes.
The general idea is to treat these drug-convicted men (they're mostly men) as though the Drug War never happened. It's an idea that's snowballing. Houseplant, the weed company co-owned by Seth Rogen, is a co-sponsor of National Expungement Week — and Rogen is pushing hard the idea of wiping records clean.
Whose record can be wiped clean? It's complicated. Boulder's James Gould built a website to help people figure it out, CanIExpunge.org. But, generally speaking, Gould says, you're more likely to be able to delete your criminal record if it:
Happened a long time ago.
Is a juvenile conviction.
Inovlved weed in states where it's now legal.
You probably can't if:
There was violence.
It was a federal crime.
The bottom line is America's prison addiction isn't just hurting people who were imprisoned, it's hurting all of us. "Prison doesn't work as a deterrent to crime, it doesn't rehabilitate individuals, it harms public health, and it costs far too much," Gould says. "We need to start investing in programs that actually work and incarceration isn't one of them."
"Winston," for his part, thinks he can seal the guilty plea in 10 years. For now, he's looking forward to starting work on the hemp farm. "There are people in cannabis that are willing to give people a second chance," he says. "So many of them know what it's like, to get in trouble for something stupid."