Getting released from prison and ingratiating yourself back in the world isn't always a smooth transition. Ex-cons face hurdles landing a job, frequently suffer from PTSD and other social and psychological disorders, and must come to terms with how the outside world has changed while they were locked up on the inside. But sometimes American evolves for the better, and those nation-wide changes can indirectly help alleviate the conflicts that come with re-entering society. For some former convicts, medical marijuana and the industry of legal weed has provided just that.
There's an obvious irony when talking about medical marijuana benefitting people who served time. As WEEDIQUETTE host Krishna Andavolu recently wrote for VICE, "Draconian sentencing laws surrounding marijuana have led to the imprisonment of millions of American citizens, many of whom are still serving time for possessing small amounts of weed for personal use... Weed is still a tool of the incestuous political economic machine of mass incarceration." In fact, several ex-cons I spoke with now have medical marijuana cards when weed was what got them locked up in the first place.
Regardless of the failure of war on drugs, weed can help prisoners get adjusted to the outside in ways past methods couldn't. Many suggest using medical marijuana more effectively treats PTSD or Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) than prescription pills, and could benefit not only prisoners but also veterans. Others ex-cons have even been able to get jobs as growers in states where commercial weed is legal. To learn more about how the plant has helped one-time prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, VICE talked to three ex-cons with medical marijuana cards.
Eyone is a 38-year-old Washington, DC native who did 17 years in federal prison for a second degree murder charge. He was released in 2010 and got a medical marijuana card a year ago, despite being on parole for life and taking regular urine tests for drugs. Jay (who asked to have his name changed) is a 39-year-old ex-con who was released from federal prison in 2008 after serving 108 months for an LSD charge. Jay resides in California and got a medical marijuana card in 2010 while he was still on federal probation. Chris is a 41-year-old from Illinois who got out in 2014 after being locked up for three years for growing marijuana. He now lives in Washington where he works for a recreational dispensary as a marijuana grower.
For more on medical marijuana, watch episode one of 'WEEDIQUETTE' below:
VICE: What benefits do you get from smoking medical marijuana?
Eyone: I need weed because it helps to keep me calm. It's helped me integrate back into society because out here in society there's a bunch of crash test dummies. If I don't have any weed, I'm going to be checking every crash test dummy I come in contact with.
Jay: I smoke weed because it alleviates anxiety and stress and all the PTSD symptoms that prison afflicted me with. I had anxiety issues before I went to jail and I was prescribed Xanax, but that's horrible for you so I don't use it. I opted for weed in place of pills and it's helped me a lot.
Chris: It's definitely helpful in some of the stressful situations you find yourself in as you re-acclimate back into society. Anybody who's has done any time behind the wall knows that you get institutionalized. It's all about routine [in prison] and then you get home and it's all on you. And it all costs money. It's not just putting in a slip to see the [prison] doctor. Everything can be stressful and I definitely believe that smoking weed helps with the process.
There's weird shit from prison, like being in your room, that you just don't get over. For example, I was freaking out last week because I moved into a new place and this is the most space I've had since I got released. My bathroom is as big as the cell I stayed in for two years. It can be overwhelming, but marijuana helps me accept these new realities.
What did you tell your doctor in order to be licensed a medical marijuana card?Eyone: I had to find a doctor in DC who could issue me one on the fly because I'd caught a dirty urine and the parole people were pressing me. But I got nerve damage from my neck to my fingers. I got stabbed in the neck in prison and it still bothers me. A doctor actually told me to file for disabilities. He didn't think a medical marijuana card was enough. She wanted to put me on anti-anxiety medication like Xanax for the PTSD, but marijuana is my medicine. I paid like $125 at the doctor's office then I selected a dispensary.
Jay: When I got out, I was thinking that everyone was a rat and I was scared to share any information or talk to anyone. I was very defensive if someone was up in my space. I told the doctor that I had anxiety and stress issues, along with insomnia—all which are true.
Chris: I've had my own problems since I've been home. You get home and you get a real bed again and it takes time to get used to a real bed again. I went to go see a doctor, and after he gave me a physical and checked me out, he wrote me a prescription.
Did getting a medical card affect your relationship with your PO?
Eyone: My PO was acting like he was upset that I had a medical marijuana card, but there's nothing he could do once the Department of Health issued it to me. I gave my card to the parole supervision people and they cleared me to be able to smoke marijuana. Now, if I have to take a drug test for the parole people, I'll smoke some weed on the way to the court building.
Jay: When I got the card, I didn't tell my PO. When you sign up, there's nothing that goes to their table. The federal probation officer didn't know about the state issued card. They moved me to low-intensity probation after 18 months and I wasn't being drug tested anymore. I ended up getting off probation two years early, too. The medical marijuana card actually saved me a couple of times too. Once, I got pulled over and the cop smelled weed. He ended up showing me his own medical marijuana card and then let me go.
Chris: I didn't have to tell my probation officer anything because I was completely paper free as of April 1, 2015 after one year on probation. It was such a relief when [my PO] came to my house and I took my last urine test. A really good friend in Washington gave me a call and asked if I wanted to move out there and work for him growing weed. I moved the week after I got off parole.
Now, if I have to take a drug test for the parole people, I'll smoke some weed on the way to the court building. — Eyone
How did your use of weed affect your job prospects?
Eyone: If the job has drug tests for pot, I would be hit. But I don't want to go to McDonald's and make $10 an hour when I can make $10 an hour elsewhere and still smoke. I write books and do appearances and signings.
Jay: Not at all. In fact, I own my own gym right now. I'm doing better than a lot of the people that did time, got out, and went right back in. A lot of the people I know have ended up in prison again.
Chris: Unfortunately, in most states, it's still illegal. Even in Washington, where it's legal recreationally, there are jobs that drug test for marijuana. There's a certain amount of puffing allowed at the job where I'm at, but you can't puff in the confines of the yard where we grow the weed.
How much did you smoke before prison and in prison, in comparison to now that you can smoke legally?
Eyone: I didn't really smoke a whole lot of weed before prison—probably like two to three j's a day. In prison, weed was scarce. I might have smoked 50 dollar's worth a day in the feds, if it was around. Out here now, I smoke an ounce a day. Smoking is a regular part of what we do. It's culture.
Jay: Before prison I smoked a lot. I self-medicated illegally. Now I smoke less because I work out a lot. I didn't work out before prison, but inside I picked it up and that helps me manage my anxiety, as well. I smoke about an eighth of an ounce every two days.
Chris: I puffed quite a bit before prison, but not at all once locked up. When I got out, I didn't puff for another four years—until I moved out to Washington. I smoke pretty moderately now because I work a lot. I like to puff when I get home at the end of the night.
How does the quality of the weed you smoked before or in prison compare to the legal weed you smoke today?
Eyone: The quality of the weed that we get from the dispensaries is the best. There is no comparison to the weed I was smoking before I came home. You get the highest THC contents in the medical weed. The higher the THC, the higher the high.
Jay: I've always smoked the dank. I tried that Mexican swag in prison once, but after I wouldn't smoke that if it was the last shit on Earth. Sometimes good weed goes around in prison, though. Now, I smoke hydro and dank bud out here. The quality has got a little bit better than I remember due to hybrids.
Chris: It's astronomically better.
What's the difference between getting weed before illegally and getting it now legally?
Eyone: Getting it now is like a blessing. We can walk around with two ounces. I've been locked up for a nickel bag of weed before, so to be able to walk around without the fear of the police bothering you is great. It's kind of unbelievable when I see the police jump out and a guy has weed on him and they don't lock him up. It takes a whole load off.
Jay: I'm licensed to grow now. I can grow up to 99 plants. I can go buy it in the store, too. I can have 11 pounds on me. I can get pulled over and the car can reek like weed and the cop can be like, "Hey, do you got any weed in the car?" I can reply, "Yeah, I got ten pounds in the back," and there's nothing he can do about it.
Chris: Before it was all black market stuff, but now everybody has weed. It's so easily accessible that it's ridiculous. Right next door to Walmart is the weed shop where I can pick up a bag of weed.
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