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Cannabis business owner now earns praise for what he was once arrested for

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some of the same communities that once prosecuted the sale of weed are now regulating and taxing it. So now one of the big questions in the budding industry is if there's a way to achieve equity for the people who were most affected by the punitive frameworks of the past. Punishment for selling and using weed fell far more heavily on some people and groups than others. So now the question is, is there a way to make sure those people and groups get to participate in and profit from the changes that have made weed a $30 billion industry? Back in 2018, Massachusetts was the first state to establish a social equity program with that in mind. So now we're going to meet somebody who stands to benefit.

Devin Alexander was arrested for distributing and possessing marijuana in 2011, but just last month, his cannabis delivery business, Rolling Releaf - that's L-E-A-F - was licensed in the city of Newton, Mass. And he's here with us now to tell us more. Devin Alexander, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DEVIN ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.

MARTIN: Do you mind if we go back to that day in 2011, when you were arrested? I think you were 17, right? And you were in a car with a couple of guys. Can you just tell me a little bit about what happened?

ALEXANDER: My two friends in the front just happened to be Caucasian.

MARTIN: And you are...

ALEXANDER: African American. We got pulled over. They tried to say we were speeding, but we weren't speeding. There was an odor of cannabis in the vehicle. And I was the only one they pulled out of the car and searched. And they found three bags of marijuana on my possession, which the total street value is no more than $60. So they arrested me. And I was put in a holding cell for about eight hours, had to get bailed out. And then, you know, just had to keep making court appearances. And I had plans of joining the U.S. Air Force. But, you know, due to my arrest, you know, those plans got derailed. So it was really tough to see friends that are going off to college and going off into the military. And then, you know, you're just kind of stuck behind, trying to figure out what you can really do next with your life.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. You were arrested, but were you convicted? Did you have to spend any time?

ALEXANDER: No, we fought it. No, none of it. They tried to offer me probation, but we still fought it because I felt that that would be an admission of guilt. So we just paid some fines and then they dismissed it.

MARTIN: But it really kind of derailed your plans just having been arrested.

ALEXANDER: Exactly. We went to the recruiter down the street and, you know, me and my mother. And we talked to him, told what happened. he was like, yeah, no, we can't accept you.

MARTIN: So now you have a state-sanctioned delivery business. Can you just tell me a little bit about what it means to you that you can legally do what you were once arrested for?

ALEXANDER: Exactly, especially doing it on the same streets too of Quincy. So we deliver on the same streets that I was arrested on. It's mind-blowing. It is. It's a lot. It's a lot to comprehend. So that arrest happened when I was 17. You know, I'm 29 now. I'll be 30 in September. I got arrested. And people just talk down on me and said I'd never do anything in my life, never go anywhere in life if I have to deal around with weed. And now I win awards, and I do public speaking events. And people call me a bright young entrepreneur. I haven't changed anything.

MARTIN: So as I understand it, the social equity program is meant to try to - I guess the phrase I would use is restorative justice. Does it feel that way to you? Do you feel like in a way that it's sort of compensation for the state saying it was wrong?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, but my story is just one of many. And there's still, you know, even as I talk to you right now, there are still individuals incarcerated for cannabis. I feel like they want to look at it as a form of reparations. So in addition, with this new reform bill that was passed last August, the state is going to create what is called the social equity trust fund, where it's going to be, you know, a state-sanctioned trust fund where social equity entrepreneurs will be able to get small interest loans and grants from the state. And the money gets pulled from the excise tax that they put on cannabis.

Massachusetts has brought in over $4 billion in revenue since we legalized in 2016. But, you know, there hasn't been any loans. I think a lot of the big model that people look at is Oakland, Calif. They were doing that with their equity applicants. They're the ones that really put out there, hey, these people need these low-interest loans and these grants because this is so tough. We can't go and get a traditional small business loan. So you're really at the will of private investors. And, you know, there's a lot of predatory practices that are going on and still go on today. So having this social equity trust fund is going to be huge for us.

MARTIN: That whole question about loans, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law. That means those are drugs that, according to the U.S. government, have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. When marijuana was placed on the Schedule 1 at the time, it was seen as partly racist. Critics now look at that and say that that was really intended to offer an opportunity to incarcerate certain people, right?

ALEXANDER: A hundred percent. And it goes back to Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, even all the way back when in the 1930s to Henry Anslinger. African Americans and Caucasians both use cannabis at similar rates, but the African American individual is four times more likely to be arrested for it and their Caucasian counterpart.

MARTIN: Well, so there are still people who feel that this is just wrong. So for people who feel that way, is there something you would want to say?

ALEXANDER: Yeah. Look at the number of cannabis deaths. How many people have died from cannabis compared to stuff that's legal? You go to a local brewery, people bring their kids, their dogs, their wife, drink alcohol that's in the 10% range, load up the car and drive home. And nobody bats an eye. You know, we're very discreet. We're delivery. It's like we're bringing it - we're giving people incentive to stay home. We're bringing it right to their front door. You know, there's been so many years of, you know, just saying no, war on drugs propaganda. We really have to undo all the miseducation that has come across these past decades.

MARTIN: That was Devin Alexander. He's the owner of Rolling Releaf. And that's R-E-L-E-A-F. It's a marijuana delivery service in Newton, Mass. Devin Alexander, thanks so much for talking to us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Michel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.