Thanks to legalization in a growing number of U.S. states, the production and sale of marijuana has bloomed into a legitimate multibillion-dollar business.
But the industry, and the laws and law enforcement practices that regulate it, display glaring inequities. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2013 that, despite roughly equal rates of drug use, black Americans have faced 3.73 times the arrest rate for marijuana possession as white Americans. And as of 2017—according to a survey by Marijuana Business Daily—people of color held only 17 percent of executive or ownership positions in legal cannabis businesses. Some existing or proposed laws exclude those with prior cannabis convictions from participating in the industry, and most low-income people cannot afford the high cost of entry.
Adam Vine ’01 and Andrew Epstein ’02 are working to make the field fairer. In 2017, they founded a two-pronged venture based in Los Angeles: the for-profit Cage-Free Cannabis and the nonprofit Cage-Free Repair. The organization sells pipes, jars, bags and other marijuana accessories, “but the bulk of our business, at this point, is consulting with companies in the cannabis industry to help them become more socially responsible,” Vine says.
“Just like fair trade coffee, or organic produce, or how your clothing’s made, our mission is to get this into the consumer consciousness,” says Epstein. They want cannabis users to have the option and the inclination to buy from businesses that promote equitable employment and reparative justice particularly for communities of color.
Just like fair trade coffee, or organic produce, or how your clothing’s made, our mission is to get this into the consumer consciousness.
Epstein and Vine were roommates during their first year at college. Epstein served on the national board of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and founded the group’s Amherst chapter. As a project for an art class in May 2001, he staged a “Day of No Joe,” during which coffee sales were banned across campus and caffeine addicts had to turn to students who peddled overpriced “black-market” espresso beans; the event proved innovative and controversial enough to garner coverage in The New York Times. Epstein went on to work with needle-exchange programs around Western Massachusetts and to report on the drug war from Colombia.
He reunited with Vine in L.A. around 2005, while both were working in film and TV. They eventually began making videos to publicize progressive causes and organizations. Seeing legalization of recreational marijuana on the horizon in California and in other states inspired them to shift their focus. “For me, it was getting back to my roots of activism and reconnecting with all the people I had known years before,” says Epstein. Vine began “working with community-based organizations here in Los Angeles that provide services like reentry programs and work with young people who have been impacted by the justice system, and various other aspects of what I came to understand as repairing harms of the war on drugs.”
Today, Cage-Free—with its diverse staff and an advisory board that includes people directly affected by the war on drugs—continues to partner with such organizations, holding fundraisers and workshops. In October 2018, they co-hosted Models of Justice in L.A., an expo to bring together community groups, cannabis industry leaders and policymakers. Later that month, as part of a coalition called the Equity First Alliance, Cage-Free orchestrated the first annual National Expungement Week, which helped 298 people in 15 cities begin the process of expunging, sealing or nullifying their criminal records.
One of Cage-Free’s large-scale goals is automated expungement by the government: that any law that decriminalizes or legalizes cannabis will also immediately expunge residents’ prior cannabis-related convictions. It seems many officials are on board. This year, for example, mass expungement was proposed or carried out with relatively little controversy in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington state and elsewhere. “I think this will soon become a federal issue,” Epstein says. “Our eyes are on Washington, D.C.”
Illustration by: Hanna Barczyk