Algorithms Automate the End of Cannabis Prohibition

by | Feb 28, 2020

Detroiter Karhlyle Fletcher is the host of High Lit, a cannabis research and classic literature podcast featuring leading voices and independent music. In addition to years in written and video cannabis journalism, he is also a traditional author.

Algorithms Do What People Don't Want To Do

Code for America, a nonprofit tech organization, is working with L.A. law officials to wipe out 66,000 cannabis convictions. The nonprofit supplies computer algorithms that run through all cases to find which are eligible to be expunged. Such organizations prove the demand for STEM employees in the cannabis space.

The ability to get charges expunged is a remarkable step forward, but it requires someone to do the paperwork. However, if the person charged is unfamiliar with the law or otherwise unaware that their case is eligible, then this step is useless. Code for America's algorithms directly caters to this demographic by simplifying the process for them. The average citizen is not literate in legal matters. It's not their fault for not understanding how to ask the government for what it's offering them.

The algorithms resolve this issue by identifying if their case is eligible for dismissal. Once a case is flagged as such, the program automatically files the paperwork. Thus, citizens avoid the tedious process of applying for expungement, and so does everybody else.

Algorithms and the Government: A Natural Pair

Although the state creates the paperwork behind the legal system, Californian officials are not thrilled by the idea of going through millions of cases to find which ones should be dismissed. The manual process would take many people years of work. Automated algorithms can accomplish the same workload in days, if not hours. Thus, these programs not only make the process more approachable but more affordable.

“The technology is actually very simple,” Senior Program Director for Code for America Evonne Silva said in an interview with Reason. “But it also starts to shift the way in which people relate to their government because now this is a service provided to the government as opposed to the government being seen as an obstacle.”

The idea of the government working for its citizens is a shift from 20th-century rhetoric, but it's a needed shift in the age of automation and continual explosive technological advancement. If the government doesn't work with the people under its rule, then it's unlikely the population will have the tools to succeed. Code for America's work greatly realizes this. They started with algorithms to help individuals petition the government but then realized how much more was at play.

“We asked the question: 'Why do people have to apply at all?” Silva continued. “Why petition at all when we know the government has the information to evaluate eligibility to provide this relief automatically?”

Such energy behind nonprofit activism has the potential to enact lasting change. In a country with democratic ideals, the systems are and behave as the people ask of them. Creating effective methods to make the system better for everyone involved is a dominant strategy that will usher in change.

The Only Bias of AI is in the Programming 

Minorities have been unfairly targeted by cannabis prohibition. Among the 66,000 cases getting relief in L.A., 32% of those receiving aid are Black, and 45% are Latino. Work by nonprofits like Code for America can undo the damage done over decades of unfair legislation.

“This is a clear demonstration that automatic record clearance is possible at scale and can help to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs,” Silva said in a statement to KTLA 5.

Having a cannabis conviction threatens individuals' work prospects, home stability, and family lives. A felony can prevent people from getting hired altogether. Several people with cannabis felonies turned back to the black market for their income after being turned away everywhere else.

Repairing from the damages done by prohibition is no easy task. Individuals, and especially minority individuals, often have to start from scratch after getting released from their sentences. When this is the case in contemporary America, Code for America's work isn’t all that’s needed.

Those returning to their lives need the support of the now thriving cannabis industry. Whether that's in the form of equity programs or other types of inclusion is unimportant. As an industry, the world of cannabis has a responsibility to make sure these people who carried the plant through prohibitions have jobs and stable lives.

Supporting the work of nonprofits like Code for America is a wonderful start. The wiping out of these cases proves promising for the future of cannabis in America. Prosecutors from Seattle, Chicago, and other metro areas across the country confirmed they would clear eligible cannabis convictions. More work can always be done, however, and it's up to the ingenuity of the industry to provide solutions to the problem of economic recovery for those with cannabis-related charges.