Since the start of 2018, we’ve been celebrating California’s legalization of cannabis for adult use. (What is “adult use”? It’s the specific and official term for what most people casually think of as “recreational.” You can read more here.)
These milestones in legalization don’t happen on their own, of course. They’re the result of thoughtful and truly challenging work taken on by people like Jesse Stout. Jesse has spent the last 15 years dedicated to pursuing drug policy reform and cannabis-related social justice. To say that he is a respected authority in cannabis law would be true. But it would also fall far short of capturing the depth of Jesse’s immersion in these issues, the unshakable seriousness and transparency with which he approaches his work, and his authentic concern for the human implications of drug policy in the United States.
Read on to learn how Jesse became involved in drug reform policy, the challenges of trying to improve diversity in the cannabis industry, and his views on why all incarceration is harmful.
You became involved in cannabis-related social justice and drug policy reform in college about 15 years ago. What made you interested in these issues?
As a college student, I co-founded my school’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Through the social fabric of the great state of Rhode Island, I met a nurse who’d been forced into retirement by multiple sclerosis. Her doctor had recommended cannabis for her neuropathic pain and spasms, but she was afraid to try it for fear of losing her children. Her experience opened my eyes to the harms of incarceration: denying someone’s freedom creates more harm and less benefit than funding healthcare, education, or housing.
You went to law school to practice in criminal defense but you made a shift in your career to work for Greenbridge, whose emphasis is corporate law for cannabis companies. Can you tell us what motivated those decisions?
Organizing Rhode Island’s cannabis patient community, I learned I wanted to work to keep people out of jail. But criminal defense is inherently reactive and case-specific. Seeing medical cannabis build momentum for adult-use legalization, I got excited about corporate law. By helping cannabis companies comply with evolving regulations, and become responsible, respected corporate citizens, I can help build the public perspective that cannabis legalization has succeeded and help reform other criminal laws.
Any interesting success stories you can tell us about in your work at Greenbridge?
In 2013, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California sought a civil asset forfeiture judgment to seize Shambhala, a dispensary on Mission Street here in San Francisco. I represented several individual patient-members of Shambhala who intervened in the forfeiture on the novel legal theory that their health and welfare would be harmed if they were denied access to medical cannabis. Ultimately, in 2015 we won on other grounds, the first time a dispensary ever defeated a federal forfeiture, and Shambhala remains open to this day.
You also work part time for THC Staffing Group, a staffing company that is trying to improve diversity in the cannabis industry. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter in that line of work?
One big problem is ignorant laws and regulations that make it harder for people with conviction histories to own, or even work for, cannabis companies. As the cannabis industry gets bigger and more investors come in, I’ve seen relatively fewer people of color hired into leadership roles.
With all of this going on, you also manage to be a member of the San Francisco State Legalization Task Force. Tell us about the objective of that task force and what it’s been able to accomplish so far.
In 2015, I was appointed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as a member of the Cannabis State Legalization Task Force [click to read more about the mission of the CSLTF] to advise the Board on how to implement Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, here in the City.
In 2017, we released our big report and presented it to the Board, then spent lots of time meeting with the supervisors and their staff to inform good public policy. We were ultimately successful with the 12/6/2017 enactment of SF Police Code Article 16. Notably this new law includes an Equity Program that prioritizes certain applicants for business permits, including people who have been arrested, attended SF public schools, or lived in impoverished census tracts.
What do you make of the Justice Department’s announcement in early January that it would take a more aggressive position against cannabis?
The Department of Justice is prohibited by federal law, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, from interfering with state-compliant medical cannabis businesses. However, since this law is an amendment to the federal budget, which will expire on January 18, 2018, Congress must renew it lest these protections expire. Everyone should contact Congress immediately to demand they renew this amendment.
Tell us about some of the positive trends that you are noticing in cannabis, whether from a legal, social justice, business, or cultural standpoint.
On January 10, 2018, the Vermont Senate passed a cannabis legalization bill. Just signed by Gov. Scott, Vermont is now the first state to legalize cannabis via the legislature, as opposed to a ballot initiative. This is a positive new trend because many states do not allow ballot initiatives, so it’s up to our legislators to take action — and we, the people, to demand change.
Okay, well now time for a few lighter questions. For one, What’s your favorite way to consume cannabis?
Legally. [We agree.]
What’s your favorite bit of cannabis lingo?
“State-licensed” and “adult-use.”
What do you do on a day off from your many jobs?