I’m a product of 1980s Reaganomics in D.C. I’m also one of 19 children. My parents moved us from D.C. to a place called Mount Rainier, Maryland. As I get older, I always remind them that we didn’t move far enough. I lost 25 friends who were all under the age of 25, before I even turned 25. PTSD is real where I come from.
I’m a second-generation grower. My mom used to grow. It was absolutely illegal at the time and that’s eventually why she stopped. I come from a home that wasn’t always the best, where we sometimes had to call 911 for our safety. And if you’re a Black family that has to call 911, you probably don’t want to have weed in your house. But they were trying to figure out the best way to survive and make it and care for this big family that they had. They were trying to bring money in when all the other avenues had been closed to them.
This is the reality I grew up in.
I started in the cannabis industry in 2014 when my cousin was diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer. The time came when the doctors said there was nothing more they could do and that she wasn’t going to make it through the night. So I said to them, “Please let me bring her some weed.” They were like, “What?” But eventually they said, “Well, what else do we have to lose?”
The first thing that came to my head was to take lean oil, and just dilute it, and then mix it with infused cannabis oil. I gave it to my cousin and in doing so, I was able to get the thrush out of her mouth. She had so much thrush built up that she wasn’t drinking and she wasn’t eating. But she took the oil and the next thing I know, two hours later she’s drinking water.
If you’re a Black family that has to call 911, you probably don’t want to have weed in your house.
It was a Tuesday when they said that she wasn’t going to make it. My cousin said to me, “I just want to be able to watch Scandal,” which aired on Thursday nights. She made it to Thursday and she got to watch Scandal. And right after it finished, that same night, she transitioned. But before she left, she said, “You got to share this shit.”
At the time, I was working for DCPS, which is DC’s local government. I was looking at their intranet, just looking at the things that we had going on in our city, and they were talking about Initiative 71, which is our gifting program that allows us to legally grow six plants legally. So I was like, “You know what, this may be my opportunity to say, fuck it, I quit. I’m going to be a drug dealer.”
That was in 2015. It was in trying to build a legal business back then that I realized how many barriers we had. I’m not talking about the 48,000 barriers that we have just from being arrested. I’m talking about other barriers, like not having the proper form of financial literacy. A lot of us didn’t even have bank accounts. We’re still out here setting up bank accounts for people.
Even now, in 2020, I have no way to get into the cannabis industry. It’s fucked up. I put in so much money and time and energy and travel away from my children to try to figure out how to get into it. I just gave up. I thought, I have to pour my time back into my life and my children. So I told myself that the last conference I would go to was the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I was like, After this, I’m done. I don’t want anything else to do with it.
But the D.P.A. opened up my eyes in a way that I’d never seen before. Because again, my community is a product of Reaganomics. We’re substance babies. Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup, or dope, or just crack cocaine, it’s already in our system because of how it was created to be put into our community. The DPA was able to tap into that and say back to me the thing I’d been saying for so long. I needed that hit of reality.
Normally I would fight somebody for taking my J, but I was so cognizant of why he’d done it.
That’s where I met my co-founder, Adam Vine from Cage-Free Cannabis Consulting. Adam also grew up in D.C. and we just started talking. I’ll never forget this moment: I was opening up to him, and I just had to hit a J outside. As I lit the J, we see a cop coming our way. Adam just took the J out of my hand. Normally I would fight somebody for taking my J, but I was so cognizant of why he’d done it. I really appreciated it. From that one conversation and then building our relationship, I saw what a real ally looks like.
I started helping Adam with some Cage-Free Cannabis consulting projects. But I hit a point where I was like, “This social equity thing is not real. Everybody has these models and programs, but I’m telling you it amounts to zero, zero, zero.” You have people that are already in the industry who are like, “We’re social equity.” And I’m like, “Where the hell were you? You’re not social equity.”
It was too much for me. Too many triggers that I couldn’t deal with at one time. I was like, “I have to tap out.” Adam asked me, “Well, what do you really want to do to make the situation better?” And I said, “Well, I’ll get back to you and let you know.”
We talked the next day, and I said, “Adam, this is what I know to be true. When I was paying between $300 and $500 dollars to go to these conferences, not including the travel, not including the Airbnbs, not including the hotel, not including the food, not including the business cards I got made so I could network, no one was doing anything to actually help me. Even when they talked about expungement, there was only one lawyer in one state, and that lawyer doesn’t know shit about DC not even being a state.”
So, Adam was like, “So, what are you saying?” I said, “I want to bring expungement to a national level of awareness. I know some people. You know some people. I’ll call families, friends, associates. I don’t care who it is, we’ve got to do something.”
At National Expungement Week, we focus on what happens when they come outside. I want everybody to have a five-year plan of post-conviction care. What does that look like? It looks like a lot of healing, you know what I’m saying? We don’t want to hammer it on people. We just want to gently flow it on people, ease it on people, and let them know, “Listen, even if you got to tap out sometimes, we understand. We’re here.”
I always let people know with National Expungement Week, it’s not only cannabis conviction charges, and it is not non-violent only.
I’ve been arrested a couple of times. In 2017, I was arrested for defending myself. I believe in self defense—100%. So, I always let people know with National Expungement Week, it’s not only cannabis conviction charges, and it is not non-violent only.
This is the second year of our national partnership with Code for America and their brigade network. Automated and automatic expungement is something that Code for America created so that, with just the flick of a wrist, they can key in a code, and generate a list of everyone who has a certain conviction for a certain amount of years, and they will just expunge that record.
Right now it’s only in certain cities in California. It was actually approved in Oregon this year, but COVID stopped it from happening. We want this in every city and in every state across the country.
We have all different types of attorneys available. We have ones that focus on housing litigation, we have immigration attorneys, we have veteran’s affairs. We have criminal defense, and now we’re working on child support because a charge is a charge.
The problem is that the processes for expungement of charges are all so different. I tell people expungement and sealing mean different things in different states. So, the first thing you want to do is contact your legal representation. If you don’t have any, reach out to us and we will find someone for you. We have an intake form. We tell people, “If you don’t even know if you have a record, it’s real easy. I don’t care if you protested. I don’t care if you jumped a rail at the metro. If they put some cuffs around your wrists, contact us or contact a lawyer.” Because you never know if you now have 48,000 barriers against you, right? We just want to make sure that you’re safe and you’re clear and you’re good to go.
So what we do at National Expungement Week is we fundraise. We fundraise for all legal fees. Any and every legal fee, we fundraise for that. No matter how long it takes. And guess what it goes back to? It goes back to being fair. We don’t want any returning citizen to be an “ex-convict.” That’s what we call our returning citizens here in D.C. We fought for that word. We did not want to be ex-convicts. We did not want to be ex-felons. We want to be returning citizens. We are returning. This is the land of the free. You are able to call yourself a motherfucking returning citizen. And vote, too.
We’re not asking for anything other than how the system is supposed to work: innocent until proven guilty, a jury of your peers.
We get you the paperwork that you need, and if the paperwork is signed, and someone is still telling you no, why are they telling you no? Then we come in as lobbyists, and figure out if we have done everything that has been mandated in this legislation for us to do. I want them to tell all of us to our face exactly what they want us to do, so that we figure out the next step. And when we hit that next step, there should be no more no. There should be absolutely no more nos.
I’m trying to get everybody to understand that you should be able to have a jury of your own peers. We’re not asking for anything other than how the system is supposed to work: innocent until proven guilty, a jury of your peers. Let’s make sure the process is equal for everybody, no matter your background. People say things to me like, “Well, where do you get all this from?” I’m like, “Being Black in America.”
Last year was the first year that we moved National Expungement Week to September to correlate with National Voter Registration Day, which is the third Tuesday of September. This year, that’s the 22nd of September—though our full week of action is September 19th to September 26th. But the 22nd is the day where I implore, I beg of every organizer, to make sure you at least get 10 people registered to vote, because these things are important. As Black and brown people, we have two things that we are not aware of. We have buying power, and we have voting power.
You have a say if you vote locally, I promise.
However, because some of us go to housing, or some of us have to live on a couch, or some of us are moved out of our homes, we’re scared to vote. You know? We need to not be scared. I know it’s hard right now during this pandemic. The only thing I ask and beg of people, and this is in any city, any state: vote. If you don’t do anything else, vote.
I know it’s confusing. I’m confused my damn self! I know it feels like none of these people do anything for you. But in Washington, D.C., we have council members, and we have Advisory Neighborhood Committees in our communities. These are the people that I see. These are people that I can probably eat with in a restaurant. So, these are people that I can talk to and hold them accountable for the things that they said that they were going to do. That’s why I vote for them. Because I can physically see them. I can get to them.
If you say, “I’m not going to vote,” just think about your local legislation. Think about what’s happening right next door to you. Think about how your school system looks. Think about how your potholes look. Think about the development of your neighborhood and if you’re going to be a part of it in the next five years. You have a say if you vote locally, I promise. There’s accountability on the local level, and then, I promise you, if you keep talking to N.E.W. and you join us, it’ll be on a federal level. You’ll be lobbying with us federally, like, “Hey, what the hell is this shit? Fix it.”
Overall for this year, our goal was $1.5 million dollars. That was before COVID. I do hope that we can still hit it. I hope we can hit it. We’re building this out not just for the cannabis industry, but for everyone that has been a part of the systemic injustice that has targeted black and brown people in marginalized communities.
People of privilege don’t understand what it’s like to live in oppression. We were born into it. We’re going to the same stores, eating the same bullshit our parents were on. We’re getting the same bullshit education. We just want to do better.
I’m so thankful for my friends that are still here that made it out of the trenches. Now, at the age of 40, we’re able to laugh about it. We didn’t even think we would see 40.
I have a T-shirt now that has 35 names on it, and that was eight years ago. It needs to be updated, and it needs to be updated with the person who made the T-shirt. This is just the reality of living in a community that was redlined, that never had the financial stability and the financial literacy to obtain the things that people of privilege have already always had.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Torie Marshall photographed by Ian Shiver in Washington, D.C. If you like this Conversation, we encourage you to support Torie's work by donating to National Expungement Week—and sharing it with friends or enemies.