As legal marijuana booms, people push for justice for those impacted by war on drugs

In 2001, Harry Kelso left his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, for the big city of Richmond and the promise of an education at Virginia Union University.

“I was gonna go to school and get my degree and get out and find a technology job and have a family. … I just had dreams … [of] just having a normal life,” he told “Nightline.”

But Kelso, like many college students, smoked weed. He says he started selling it on the side while in college to make extra cash.

“It was just so open, like everybody was smoking,” he said. “It never felt illegal or criminal, but in a sense, I did know it was breaking the law.”

A few years later, he returned home one day to find police waiting outside his apartment, which he said had been “taped off like it was a murder scene — for marijuana.”

Getting busted was scary enough, he said. But when he learned that he’d be receiving a severe sentence, it was absolutely devastating.

“I never thought in history that I would ever get sentenced to 10 years for marijuana,” he said.

At just 25 years old, Kelso began a nearly decade-long sentence for a first-time felony conviction.

Virginia legalized recreational use of cannabis just this year, becoming the first Southern state to legalize recreational cannabis, joining at least 16 others: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, New York and New Mexico.

Virginia’s recreational marijuana legalization jump-started an entirely new industry in the state, leaving people like Kelso wondering what they stand to gain after losing so much.

“I want in,” he said. “I sold not even $100,000 [worth of marijuana] and got 10 years. You’re telling me you can legally sell hundreds of millions [worth]? … It’s kind of tough to swallow.”

The wave of legislation reflects a cultural shift in our nation. Ninety-one percent of Americans say marijuana should be legal for medicinal or recreational use, according to Pew Research Center.

As more states legalize recreational use and public support increases, Congressional Democrats have been working on legislation that could make cannabis legal at a federal level. Currently, marijuana is listed as a schedule 1 substance, where it has been sitting alongside heroin and ecstasy since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed.

Steven Hawkins, president and CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council and executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said it wasn’t until the late 1930s that officials began to ban cannabis. Before then, he said cannabis had been unregulated, even selling in the 1880s for its medicinal value. He said that some of the history regarding its regulation “has a very strong racist background.”

“What that has done is, over these decades, we’ve had millions of people arrested for cannabis possession or sale. We’re talking about low-level offenders who have gotten, in some instances, felonies that have stayed with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Natalie Papillion is the director of strategic initiatives at The Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit focused on issues at the intersection of cannabis policy and criminal justice reform. She says that in the 1930s, marijuana use was associated with Mexican immigrants as well as African American entertainers and sharecroppers in the South.

“We see the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, have a concerted vendetta against black musicians, going so far as to deputize people to hound Louis Armstrong and arrest him for his cannabis use,” Papillion said.

From its inception, she says, marijuana bans have been “rooted in racism, steeped in xenophobia and [have] served no real public health or safety benefit.”

The East Coast has become the new ground zero for recreational use laws. In November 2020, New Jersey passed a ballot measure legalizing cannabis use for adults.

Ed Forchion, who is also known as the “NJ Weedman,” has been selling marijuana illegally, without a license, for years out of his restaurant across the street from Trenton’s City Hall.

“I’m kinda like the Robin Hood of reefer around here,” Forchion said. “I truly believe that I can get away with selling weed on State Street. I believe that the state could not get 12 people to convict me of a marijuana charge… I don’t think they can get 12 people to agree to put me in prison — not while all the rich, white guys are selling weed too.”

Forchion’s rapport with the community and outright brazenness have earned him quite a following, with lines at his joint often stretching around the block.

Forchion has been arrested multiple times for his dealings, including on the night before he spoke to “Nightline” — about two weeks before recreational cannabis use was formally signed into law by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

Forchion said those run-ins with the law only fueled his fight to change the law. But now that the law is changing in his state, he says it’s not in the way he’d hoped.

“It wasn’t the legalization that we all envisioned,” Forchion said. “What [the law] actually legalized was regulated cannabis. … Only from the corporations that the state was going … to license. So, you couldn’t buy weed … legally from a guy like me.”

New Jersey has implemented social justice measures into its legislation ranging from a social equity tax directed at communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to opportunities for licensing.

However, acquiring a license to legally sell cannabis can be difficult and expensive. In some states, those with a criminal record are barred from getting one.

“Me and the rich, white guy, we’re doing the same thing,” Forchion said. “We’re selling or providing marijuana to the public, right? But … I get [the] penitentiary and he can get a pension. Like, it’s the same exact thing.”

According to a 2017 survey from Marijuana Business Daily, only 19% of respondents who launched a cannabis business or had an ownership stake in a marijuana company were a racial minority.

Joe Bayern, the CEO of Curaleaf, one of the biggest players in New Jersey’s pre-existing medical marijuana market, says the company’s operations are set to expand as more states begin to legalize adult-use cannabis.

“You need a foundation for growth,” Bayern told “Nightline.” We need a foundation to establish a marketplace. We’re creating an industry from the ground up, and in order to do that, we need scale and we need to have investment.”

“Our goal is to then have an omnichannel type of product distribution where we’re partnering with delivery partners, dispensary partners, small businesses [and] cafes to create an entire ecosystem to build out the marketplace,” he said.

Curaleaf has been in business for a decade and has expanded to 23 states and over 100 dispensaries. Bayern says that the company has a responsibility as a leader in the industry to help address social justice issues.

“We take our leadership position very seriously,” Bayern said. “We embrace opportunity across all of the markets we operate in and all the communities we operate in. So, we are working with many of the states to think about how we bring social equity to the markets in which we participate.”

Part of the company’s social equity business plan, Bayern said, is to hire employees with criminal histories related to marijuana offenses.

“We have a goal this year to hire 10% from people who have actually been harmed by the war on drugs — who have criminal records,” he said. “We’ve started in some markets. The irony in some states is that those are the people who are precluded from actually participating in the marketplace. So, we’re trying to bring social equity to the forefront of consciousness and create opportunities for these people.”

By 2025, Curaleaf aims to conduct business with 420 brands, suppliers and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities in the industry. It also plans to contribute at least $1 million toward programs addressing the collateral consequences associated with marijuana-related offenses.

One of the people helping Curaleaf develop and reach those goals is Khadijah Tribble, Curaleaf’s vice president of corporate social responsibility. While licensing regulations are one hurdle some face in becoming a part of the industry, Tribble says there are other areas in the industry where there should be more representation, too.

“Look around you. The lighting, the building, the training, all [of] that is required to actually build this industry,” Tribble said. “I think my best [case] scenario is that I wake up and that there are underrepresented groups killing it in every facet, from policy to legal to accounting to fashion.”

She went on, “I’m also not someone that believes that we’re always going to have a kumbaya moment. … History has taught us that we’re going to have to continue fighting for the things that we believe are right and the things that are valuable to us. … So I always imagined that I’m going to be fighting for [an] even more just situation. No matter how great we get, there’s always going to be a way that we can fight for better.”

Beyond social equity in the cannabis industry, Tribble also said that people impacted by the war on drugs deserve attention and care.

“We have people who are in rehab. We have people who are locked up, people who lost family members in homes and all kinds of things… They might not want anything to do with weed and they have every right not to, but that doesn’t mean they’re not owed something,” she said. “So, I want to partner with organizations that are actually in the trenches providing the pushback on those collateral consequences, because those are the most devastating.”

Kelso, who was sentenced to prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and three counts of causing a minor to assist in distribution, says he’s still feeling the ripple effects of his conviction.

“You miss a lot, man. You miss Christmases, birthdays. People die. It’s terrible,” he said.

He said his mother was the person who helped him get through his time in prison, and that she’d come to see him once a month.

“Going to see him, I had to prepare myself,” Robin Bell told “Nightline.” “You got 45 minutes to see him and they come around and they tell you, ‘Your time is up, your time is up.’ … It was real hard. I looked forward to that day when I could pick him up.”

After serving nearly nine years, Kelso became a free man at 34.

“I probably put my dreams on hold because it’s like coming home in my 30s and everybody’s already set in their life in their 30s, and it’s like essentially I’m starting my life new,” he said.

Kelso, who had once worked toward a career in tech, knew those aspirations could be out of reach due to his record. So, he learned how to cut hair while he was in prison.

“I went straight [to work] in a barbershop and started cutting hair,” he said. “I tried to do everything so my felony wouldn’t play a role in how people would be able to perceive me.”

But while he is free now, there are still limits.

Papillion says the collateral consequences of a cannabis record “runs the gamut from not being able to access employment [and] not being able to access public assistance.” A person’s credit score, she said, “is absolutely shot” and “forget getting a loan. It’s impossible.”

“These collateral consequences … are oftentimes as devastating as the sentence itself,” she said.

As recreational legalization continues, Kelso says he’d “like to have a farm — a dispensary that delivers.”

It’s unclear if Kelso will even be eligible to obtain a license to sell recreational weed in Virginia. It also remains to be seen if his criminal record will be expunged.

“Those individuals have already paid a price and the question isn’t, ‘Should they be punished? They already have been punished,” Hawkins said. “It is about the future, and the future in a state that has legalized cannabis is that no one in the future is going to be subject to criminal prosecution. So, expungement is giving those individuals that have already done their time the opportunity to go on with their lives, to not be held back from housing or jobs or education because of that cannabis conviction. So, expungement doesn’t look in the past, it really looks to the future and gives everybody a chance to have a bright future.”

As each state charts its own path toward recreational marijuana use, the social equity initiatives they’ve implemented have varied from expungement to resentencing to licensing and reinvestment in minority communities.

Yet, for the loved ones of those impacted by previous marijuana laws, these relief measures are only a small repayment for what was lost.

“You can restore your rights to vote, OK. But you can’t restore justice. … That’s 10 years of [Kelso’s] life that was taken away,” Bell said. “So how can you restore it? Give him money for it? Give him his years? How are you going to give him his 10 years? Time with his family, how do you do that? You can’t.”

Kelso says he is now focused on the future and working toward change. He hopes to see marijuana legalized on a federal level, with restorative justice comprising a piece of that legislation.

He has also been sharing his own story widely, including with the nonprofit Cruel Consequences and later in a 2019 press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where he stood alongside former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

“Something’s gotta change with the laws because it’s just cruel and unusual punishment,” he said during the press conference.

Sharing his story, he said, might help.

“I hope that it would make people more open to cannabis — maybe stop demonizing it,” he said. “And it’ll allow lawmakers to see how laws on marijuana are affecting the communities.”