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August 06, 2020
The Photo Initiative Healing Those Targeted by the War on Cannabis

BY ANDREW NGUYEN

Photos courtesy of 420 Portraits Project

In 2020, millions of Americans can openly celebrate April 20th as the repeal of cannabis prohibition continues. But while cannabis has become a multi-billion dollar industry, there are people still incarcerated. The "War on Drugs" has taken a terrible cost on human lives, specifically on communities of color. To those not familiar with the multitude of positive uses for the plant, there still exists a wealth of misinformation. 

That’s where 420 Portraits comes in — it’s a project calling for the previously-incarcerated to tell their story in order to heal the damage done by the War on Cannabis. These are neighbors, family members, and friends with their own experiences of how being targeted and treated unfairly has impacted their lives. Putting a human face is meant to inspire permanent policy change, create empathy, and ultimately change limited worldviews.

One of the minds behind 420 Projects is Christian Averill, who hopes that people keep submitting their experiences. “The goal always was to raise awareness with a human face and help people realize that these are regular folks that are in your community,” he told MedMen. “Then we can impact policy, motivate people to pay attention, and get involved when elections come. The end game is healing — to change the stigma and then to have an impact on how things go forward.”

Before widespread legalization and decriminalization in the last decade,cannabis arrests accounted for over half of all drug arrests in the United States from 2000 to 2010. According to the ACLU, of the 8.2 million cannabis-related arrests in that time frame, 88 percent were for mere possession. Annually, $50 billion is spent on "drug enforcement" and the arrest data translates into significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people were almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis. In general, people of color are four to eight times more likely to be arrested for possession of the plant.

Almost 30 people have already come forward with their story and had their photo taken for 420 Projects. There’s Josh Weitz, also known as Malcolm Mirage, who was drawn to selling cannabis after hearing about the effectiveness of its medicinal uses from his three uncles with colon cancer. Weitz was arrested in New York City for possession of a couple of pounds and served time at Rikers for about a year. His experience inspired him and his sister to create a broad equity program, made to give access to people of color that were formerly incarcerated for cannabis, to create their own businesses. Now he owns his own company called Mirage Medicinal. 

There’s also the New York-raised Gary Pray, who recalls growing up in the Bronx with a family who was struggling to survive and saw friends and family constantly incarcerated because of the War on Drugs targeting marginalized communities. 

“Drugs really hit hard in the 80s and, ever since then, there are people that haven't recovered. This is generational. They're used to getting caught up and don’t see how to be prosperous beyond drugs. They have friends that are in jail. They have family that are in jail. It’s normal for them. There's a lot of people that are just grinding for their families. Some kids don't have income from their parents and they're out on the streets trying to get money any way possible. So, they get caught up in the drug game because that's what's in front of them as soon as they come out the door. Ultimately, the goal is to get some type of help. It may not seem that way, but these people, some of them have been to jail and it's hard to find a job. Some of them don't have a lot of skills. Some of them didn't make it through school, or have any other means of getting money.  When you can't find people to support you, to guide you, that cycle repeats itself. It’s leading to generations of people caught up in this drug game.”

If you or a loved one has been incarcerated because of cannabis, or if you’ve experienced fear because of cannabis policing, tell your story on 420 Projects. Due to lockdown, they’ve switched to online portrait sessions with their photographers. If you’re interested, fill out their form here.

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