Seth Rogen needs no introduction: He’s the co-writer (with collaborator Evan Goldberg) of popular films like Superbad, Pineapple Express and The Interview, and a renowned voice actor for The Lion King, Kung Fu Panda and Shrek the Third.
But what fans may not know of is Rogen’s newest gig co-founder (also with Goldberg) in 2019 of the Ontario-based cannabis company Houseplant.
Along with his new status as cannabis entrepreneur, Rogen has become an activist against the industry’s bleak record of racial disparities in cannabis arrests and prosecutions. The actor’s chief focus: increasing efforts to expunge the records of former offenders – largely African American – discriminated against for jobs due to their minor cannabis “crimes” in the past.
“Expungement is incredibly important because it’s a way of correcting some of the wrongs and [restoring] the rights of these people who have been negatively affected by the War on Drugs,” Rogen declared Wednesday at an online forum titled Reimagining Justice that was hosted by the Marijuana Policy Project. “So we have been working with National Expungement Week [September 19-26] to raise awareness and encourage people to work with [ex-offenders] to get their records expunged.
“It can be a complicated process without an organization guiding them through it,” Rogen continued. “There are lawyers who might try to rip you off and charge you for things. And a lot of people aren’t even aware that [expungement] is an option for them, which is a true travesty.”
The actor-writer was joined by a number of top activists in the expungement-legalization movement focusing on the wrongs done to African Americans, as reflected in FBI crime data. That data shows that that from 2001 to 2010, 8.2 million marijuana arrests took place in the United States; 88 percent were for simple possession; and overall blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be the target.
Rachel Rollins, the district attorney for Suffolk County, a populous region encompassing Boston and its neighboring cities – and the county’s first black woman D.A. — pointed out that in her state, expungement laws leave the responsibility for legal work squarely in the lap of the defendant. “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so even though I have lawyers telling me ‘We can’t do that; they have to do it for themselves,’ what we [legal professionals] can do is make it as humanly easy for them to do it as possible,” Rollins said at the conference.
As a next step, she suggested a widespread campaign to send letters to the thousands of Massachusetts youth impacted by minor offenses and enclose the expungement forms they need to fill out, which her office would then automatically approve. Rollins also suggested supporting pushing district attorney candidates campaigning for office to reject prosecuting small marijuana crimes and instead focus on truly violent, dangerous crime.
Another concern of Rollins’: the racial disparities in criminal justice at the high school level, in urban schools, where so many early marijuana arrests occur. “I like to say that marijuana has been ‘legal’ in the suburbs, right?” she said, “because police only arrest where they are.”
White kids in Greater Boston’s wealthy “W” towns (Wellesley, Winchester, Waban) have basically had a free ticket to smoke marijuana and get away with it, Rollins pointed out.
For those privileged kids, she said, police “weren’t grabbing your junk and making you pull your pants down and do other stuff that they do all over [largely black] Roxbury and Mattapan.”
White teens also have long been able to consume marijuana safely at home – something black parents generally won’t tolerate. And that fact sends those parents’ black sons and daughters out to their cars and into the hands of nearby, obsessed police.
Another speaker, the Rev. Delman Coates, who heads the black megachurch, Ennon Baptist Church, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, also addressed the black vs. white high school issue, urging his community of fellow faith leaders to shift from supporting mere decriminalization to advocating for outright legalization. After all, Coates pointed out, medical and health benefits should be part of the conversation.
So should economic benefits. “We have to figure out how to get more black entrepreneurs into this space,” Coates said, and his fellow panelists agreed. Rollins pointed out how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has awarded 421 cannabis licenses statewide, but only 11 to date in Suffolk County, where the lion’s share of black arrests for possession take place. “We recognize that the individuals harmed by cannabis should be the ones to reap benefit from this billion-dollar industry,” Rollins said.
Goldberg, Rogen’s screenwriting and business partner, chimed in about the opportunity to make changes to a cannabis industry still in its early stages. “We are creating an industry here, so we have the change it, forge it the way we want,” Goldberg said.
And Rogen echoed that thought, advocating for “shaming” white entrepreneurs, whenever necessary, to recognize the criminal justice realities in this new cannabis sector they’ve jumped into.
“If you are white people in the cannabis space, you should acknowledge the realities of the space you are in, the conditions on which this industry was built and the history of cannabis in America,” Rogen said. “Especially [given the fact that] people don’t want to acknowledge it or think about it.
“To use [cannabis], we cannot operate one day without acknowledging it because we are benefiting from it.”