Rob Jenkins tried for four years to find a job, scouring the internet for anything that seemed at all appealing — a maintenance position at a Chevron refinery, a counselor for foster kids, a clerk at Hertz.
Some employers seemed interested, until they found out about his 2008 misdemeanor conviction for growing marijuana.
“I was stuck,” recalled the 37-year-old college graduate. “No job opportunities were coming in.”
He found himself in the same situation as hundreds of thousands of others across the country whose prospects for the future were diminished by criminal records for marijuana cultivation or possession.
Now a new movement accompanying the widespread push for pot legalization may give them a second chance and help black and Latino neighborhoods that have been the focus of drug law enforcement. The aim is to wipe records clean and help people put their formerly illicit skills to use in the booming industry of legal cannabis.
It started in California in 2016 when voters approved Proposition 64, which not only legalized recreational marijuana, but also made it easier for people with pot convictions to expunge their records. Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco have started giving people with prior convictions — or those from neighborhoods that were once heavily targeted for marijuana-related arrests — priority for licenses to start new pot businesses.
New Jersey, North Dakota and Michigan may soon follow suit, with advocates for pot-legalization measures under consideration this fall making social and economic justice the centerpiece of their campaigns.
It’s a decisive shift from the traditional rationales for legalization — evolving public attitudes about the drug and the opportunity to tax it.
“In New Jersey, black residents are three times more likely than white residents to be arrested for marijuana offenses,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in an email explaining his support for a marijuana-legalization bill that lawmakers are expected to pass this month.
The law would “help break the cycle of nonviolent, low-level drug offenses that prevent people, especially people of color, from succeeding,” he said.
Research shows that whites, blacks and Latinos use and sell marijuana at similar rates, but that blacks by far are the most likely to be arrested in connection with the drug. One California study found that African Americans make up 6% of the state’s population, but are nearly a quarter of those serving time in jail exclusively for marijuana offenses.
In Oakland, where Jenkins grew up, blacks and whites each make up about 30% of the population. But 77% of the people arrested in connection with marijuana in 2015 were black, while just 4% were white, according to a recent report by the city. The analysis looked back to 1995 and found a similar pattern each year.
Jenkins, who is black, remembers watching marijuana sales as a child. Cars would come and go making purchases from pastel-colored duplexes that lined the hilly streets of East Oakland.
“It’s a part of life,” he said. “A lot of the weed being sold in Oakland was to wealthy whites in Berkeley and elsewhere in the Bay Area.”
“But we were getting arrested,” he said.
Jenkins never set out to be a drug dealer. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2003 with a degree in sociology, he found work selling cars and internet plans and eventually got a job at Comcast answering complaints from customers for $15 an hour.
Even with his girlfriend’s income from a sales job at a department store, they struggled to pay the rent and care for their sons in rapidly gentrifying Oakland.
Jenkins started growing and selling marijuana in 2007 as an extra source of income, bringing in about $500 a week.
Then one night in November 2008, there were two knocks at his apartment door before police threatened to barge through it. When Jenkins let them in, several officers headed to a back room where sodium-pressure lights hovered above two dozen marijuana plants growing knee-high from buckets.
Jenkins never learned how police discovered his operation. He was one of 914 African Americans arrested on marijuana charges that year in Oakland.
He spent 24 hours behind bars before his mother, who worked at an electronics sales company, bailed him out. Jenkins was originally charged with a felony — he had a firearm in his home — but it was changed to a misdemeanor after prosecutors discovered the firearm was legally registered to him.
He started applying for jobs while he was still serving two years of probation and piled up more rejections than he can remember.
In 2011, he went back to illegally growing and selling marijuana. He said he stopped two years later after finally finding a legal job: growing pot for medical use for a dispensary in San Francisco.
But it was only part time, and Jenkins realized that his future was stalled unless he could clear his name. The next year, he spent $4,000 — a big chunk of his savings — to hire an attorney to successfully guide him through a little-known and highly uncertain legal process that allows some low-level marijuana offenders to petition the courts to expunge their convictions.
California’s new law seeks to popularize and streamline that process.
In January, San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón announced that his office would begin to dismiss 3,000 marijuana misdemeanors dating back to 1975 and seal the records of those people sentenced before Proposition 64 passed. Nearly 5,000 felony convictions would also be reviewed for possible dismissal or resentencing. The process could take more than a year to complete.
In Alameda County, where Oakland is located, prosecutors have identified nearly 6,000 cases eligible for dismissal — an opportunity to alleviate past discrimination, said Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley. Of those, more than 600 people have filed petitions and had them granted.
“California is offering a second chance to people convicted of cannabis crimes,” O’Malley said.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has said her office will not automatically dismiss or reduce marijuana convictions and that people seeking to clear their records should do so using the courts.
But a bill passed in August and set to go into effect next year requires the California Department of Justice to prepare a list of people eligible to have their convictions dismissed and places the onus on county prosecutors to do so in all cases except those in which they determine there is “an unreasonable risk to public safety.”
Still, in some places, expunging those records is only a first step in righting the wrongs of the past.
Last year, Oakland officials created the nation’s first so-called social equity program, reserving at least half of all new cannabis dispensary licenses for residents targeted by discriminatory drug and sentencing laws.
The program is open to any resident with a cannabis conviction after 1996 — the year medical marijuana was passed — and no other criminal history. Also eligible are people who earn less than 80% of the city’s median income of $56,000 or who have lived for at least 10 years in a neighborhood deemed to have high numbers of pot-related arrests.
It also offers the chance to be paired with an investor — known as an incubator — who shares the license and funds the business for at least three years. Six of the eight permits granted by the city this year went to equity applicants.
“The creation of these equity programs is the beginning of acknowledging the greater issue of the criminalization of brown and black people,” said Nina Parks, an activist who worked with local officials to create the Oakland program as well as the one in San Francisco. “These policies are not reparations, but moves toward restoring justice.”
She and other supporters of the programs say it will take time and more publicity to see results. Many people are unaware of the equity programs or opportunities to expunge their records.
The efforts are not without controversy.
Some opponents argue that the law was the law and anybody who broke it should have to deal with the consequences.
Others such as Kevin A. Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has spent thousands of dollars in recent years to oppose legalization of recreational pot, dismiss the notion that equity programs can really lift up poor neighborhoods.
“This is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s an insult to vulnerable communities,” Sabet said in an email. “Unless the state gives away millions of dollars of free start-up money, do we think a kid from Compton is going to be able to compete against a Beverly Hills heir, let alone the Big Tobacco, alcohol, and pharma interests that are now swarming around the pot industry? It is the saddest attempt at social justice I have ever seen.”
Indeed, even some pot activists are worried that participants in equity programs could be manipulated by their investors and booted from the businesses after the three-year commitment ends.
“Of course there are going to be bad actors,” Parks said. “This is all so new that we’re going to need even more reforms and safeguards as this moves forward.”
Still, momentum is building across the country for similar programs.
Criminal justice reform will be a key consideration when voters or legislators in three states decide this fall whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, as is already the case in California and eight other states.
North Dakota’s ballot proposal this November calls for the automatic expungement of some marijuana-related convictions. The Michigan measure, also being put before voters, would lower some criminal marijuana-related violations to civil infractions.
The New Jersey bill, which lawmakers plan to introduce as soon as this week, would make it easier for people with low-level convictions — possessing small amounts of pot — to clear their records.
It would also mandate that 25% of dispensary licenses must be issued to individuals who live in so-called social impact zones — areas with high poverty and disproportionate marijuana arrest rates.
“This kind of reform is long overdue,” Jenkins said.
Even so, his future is far from assured in a new and unstable industry.
Last year, Jenkins got a part-time job at a local cannabis nursery, planting and tending to various strains, which he also smokes on a regular basis. But he was laid off last month with 30 other employees because the company was having financial problems.
His best hope now is Oakland’s equity program, which accepted him earlier this year.
The city helped connect him with a team that plans to open a dispensary in November. Jenkins will be the grow manager. The investors have also committed to helping him open a pot nursery that would eventually belong entirely to him.
“I’ve had ups and downs, but others have had it way worse,” Jenkins said. “I’ve seen brothers locked up for years over some marijuana. Just marijuana. It’s not right.”