Meet the cannabis farmer who can't own his farm

Meet the cannabis farmer who can't own his farm

by Natalie Fertig

July 16, 2018 07:59 AM EDT

PORTLAND, OR - (Circa) When HiFi Farms started in Oregon five years ago, there was one person Lee Henderson knew would be integral to the farm's success.

"We immediately called Richard," Henderson said, sitting in a renovated industrial building-turned-co-working space in Portland, Oregon that functions as HiFi's corporate office. The framed records, music posters and hand-drawn cannabis art hanging on or leaning against the office's walls reinforced Esquire Magazine's 2017 designation of HiFi as "the coolest cannabis farm in Oregon."

Richard VInal said yes, leaving a gig making steel drums in Asheville, North Carolina to build a grow room in the basement of a craftsman house in North Portland. Five years later, HiFi farms has a permanent home in the farmlands of Hillsboro, Oregon, twenty miles west of Henderson's rocker-themed office.

Vinal studied horticulture at the University of Georgia and used his carpentry experience to help with the initial build out in North Portland, back when HiFi only grew medicinal marijuana. Over the next five years, he helped to create and execute the grow plan, developed new strains, and oversaw the farm operations in his role as Chief Operations Officer.

What Henderson and team had to overlook, though, when they called Vinal to Oregon, was his criminal record.

As a Georgia college student, Vinal was caught and charged with possession of one pound of cannabis and operation of an illegal grow house. According to Vinal, he never sold to minors and only to friends and family. He had never been convicted of any other crime before his arrest for marijuana.

After some time in jail and on house arrest awaiting trail, Vinal took a plea deal and was sentenced to three years incarceration - he was released early on parole - and four years probation. His probation ended in December 2017. Sitting on the couch in his living room in Hillsboro, Oregon, Vinal shook his head a little.

"It's completely ridiculous that laws are from state to state about a plant are severe enough that you could go to prison on the tax payer dime," he said.

And while he was in prison in Georgia for growing cannabis, other states began to legalize.

"There was a time that I was locked up and I was watching, I think it was, the Discovery Channel," he said. "I was watching a show about dispensaries in Colorado."

Now, living in Oregon - where growing and selling marijuana simply requires a license to operate - Vinal cannot qualify for a license, because of his criminal record. He can't even own his portion of HiFi Farms, despite building it from the ground up.

As of mid-2018, ten states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized cannabis for any adult use. Close to 30 have legalized medical marijuana. But as legalization spreads, questions are beginning to arise concerning those who have existing criminal records related to cannabis. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have made pledges to expunge or downgrade all previous cannabis-related, non-violent convictions, including felonies. But if your record is from a state still without a legal industry, how do you go about getting in a job in a state where it is legal?

For Richard, his friends were his support system - giving him his first job out of college and eventually recruiting him for the farm in Oregon. But not everyone is so lucky.

In 2010, police made 853,838 arrests for marijuana-related offenses. Between 2001 and 2010, according to the ACLU, there was one marijuana-related arrest ever 37 seconds. A disproportionate number of those arrested are minorities; the ACLU reports that a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than a white person.

"I'm very lucky that I had friends and family to support me," Vinal explained. "For people that don't have that support system, to get out of prison with a felony on your record and to try to start from scratch is extremely difficult."

It's for this reason that movements have arisen in legal-cannabis states to expunge or downgrade past convictions to reflect current law. Since 2016, for example, the city of San Francisco has identified over 7,000 marijuana convictions that can be either downgraded or cleared altogether based on new cannabis laws, according to Vox.

Other states were not as quick to take up the issue, however. Colorado, the nation's first legal cannabis market, did not provide a road for expungement until 2017, five years after voters passed the initial legalization bill.

Since then, states like California, Oregon and Massachusetts have all created expungement programs enabling the courts to clear a record if the offense is not considered a crime under current state law.

"If the record involves possession of small amounts of marijuana, growing a couple plants, things that are now legal, I think that that makes a whole lot of sense," said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley told Circa in early 2018.

But Senator Merkley's position - while helpful for anyone who has been convicted in Oregon state - does not affect any of the workers coming from prohibitive states to the legal states where the new adult-use cannabis market is gaining steam.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, it is estimated that there are between 165,000-230,000 full and part-time workers in the marijuana industry as of 2017. Some of those workers, like Richard, moved to legal cannabis states from places where the industry is still illegal.

Lee Henderson and Richard Vinal both were born and raised in Georgia. Without the appropriate licenses, Vinal would still be charged with a few misdemeanors and possibly one felony in Oregon for the amount of marijuana he was carrying and growing at the time. But now, while others in Oregon are facing the potential that their records could be reduced, that Georgia felony is the primary reason Vinal cannot receive a license to grow in Oregon.

Oregon, where Vinal and Henderson operate HIFI Farms, issues marijuana licenses through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, or the OLCC. OLCC guidelines prohibit anyone with a felony from receiving a marijuana permit, even if that felony was for growing marijuana. For this reason, Vinal – despite being the lead cultivator and one of the founders with the greatest amount of experience – was not included on any of the licensing applications and cannot himself still own his portion of HiFi Farms. Rather, his mother owns a portion of the company for him.

"It was not something we could take a risk on," explained Henderson. "Which was frustrating for us, but I'm sure frustrating for him."

Vinal says expungement isn’t his end goal – he simply wishes no one cared.

“I just want people to view it as the antique, sort of the relic that it is,” Vinal explained. “The way people probably in the '40s looked at the records of people that got caught brewing whiskey out in the woods.”

Some states have decided that previous convictions for marijuana should have no bearing - or even a positive bearing - on the application and licensing process in a new marijuana market. Massachusetts, for example, legalized marijuana in 2016, and in 2017 created the first ever "economic empowerment review."

Under this review, licensing review priority is granted to companies where 51% or more of the employees have had a marijuana-related conviction, and companies can qualify for an 'equity program' that includes fee wavers and additional business training and help if the majority of owners have a marijuana-related conviction either in Massachusetts or in another jurisdiction.

But Georgia is unlikely to expunge Richard's record anytime soon, and Oregon's OLCC regulations aren't under review. So for the time being, Richard - now a father, and newly off probation - will continue life as normal. And he recognizes how lucky he is that 'normal' includes a job, a home and a family.

"I'm very lucky that I had friends and family to support me," he explained. "For people that don't have that support system, to get out of prison with a felony on your record and to try to start from scratch is extremely difficult."

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