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Advocating for Change: Jake Agliata on Cannabis, Patient Choice, and More

Jake Agliata is pictured on a purple background with parting purple curtains.

We sat down with Leafwell’s Partnership Manager, Jake, to talk about cannabis advocacy in observance of World Social Justice Day, February 20th.

Jake talks about why cannabis is a social justice issue, how advocacy work brought him to work in the industry and the work that still needs to be done to make access to cannabis fair and equitable to all.

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What Does a Day in Your Life Look Like?

My job is to work with our dispensary and affiliate partners across the country to organize virtual patient drives and other initiatives that help patients get certified for their medical cards quickly and at the most affordable prices.

From Advocacy To Working in the Cannabis Industry

My journey to the cannabis industry has been a long time coming. I first got involved through cannabis advocacy work. From an early age, I always questioned why cannabis was illegal in the first place.

Some personal experiences in my life shaped my view that the War on Drugs as a whole has been a disaster and has ruined the lives of cannabis users and people who use drugs everywhere while doing nothing to address the harms of substance misuse anywhere.

In 2010, as a freshman in college, I started a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, known as SSDP, on my campus. I had several friends who had been kicked out of school for using cannabis, which motivated me to advocate for changing the student misconduct policy so something like smoking a joint wouldn’t completely ruin a student’s life.

During this time, I became aware and learned a lot about the broader injustices caused by cannabis prohibition, such as mass incarceration, racial discrimination, housing and employment discrimination, militarized policing, and rejection of the rights of bodily autonomy.

After graduating, I went to work for SSDP at their international office in Washington, D.C., where I had the opportunity to mobilize students and young people all around the country to volunteer on cannabis legalization campaigns, primarily in Washington, D.C., Oregon, Massachusetts, California, and Michigan.

I got to go to these states and gather young people to help work on the legalization campaigns, making phone calls, canvassing, and registering people to vote. That was an enriching experience because I felt like I got to be impactful and a big part of the cannabis legalization movement during that time while also helping other people be a part of that movement.

During this time, I also began to work in global drug policy reform with SSDP, took a lot of this to the international level, and organized young people worldwide to advocate for the United Nations, bringing their local stories to global audiences. After that, I began working in global drug policy and human rights advocacy for several years with an organization called the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, or INPUD.

While I enjoyed this work and did it for a number of years — all throughout the pandemic — I eventually felt very drawn to come back to work in cannabis, which is where I found Leafwell.

I was very impressed with the mission-driven nature of Leafwell and the fact that it’s not just a company looking to profit off of cannabis legalization but is dedicated to increasing the efficacy of medical cannabis for patients and increasing its access.

That’s something that spoke to me. It’s been about 18 months now, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of working here.

What Is Harm Reduction?

In essence, it treats substance use and abuse as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal one. It’s a philosophy centering around helping people mitigate the harms and risks of drug use.

Harm reduction accepts that drug use is going to happen and does not take a zero-tolerance or abstinence-only approach. We accept that people are going to use drugs. The idea behind harm reduction is to do everything possible to reduce harm for people using them without judgment or stigma.

It includes a wide range of community- and people-focused services designed to help people survive on a day-to-day basis and enrich their health and lives.

It could be training people how to use Naloxone, which some people know as Narcan, to help reverse overdoses and make sure people have access to those. It could include things like methadone, which is an opioid agonist therapy, to help people who are in recovery stay off drugs and maintain their recovery as well.

It’s a philosophy of understanding, community, and compassion, and it’s something that I’m glad to see is becoming much more accepted across the world and in this country as well.

Joining a group like this as a student allowed me to learn what I was passionate about and what I wanted to do. For any young person or student interested in cannabis policy or advocacy or anything of that nature, it’s an excellent opportunity to get involved with an organization like SSDP.

Are there still things to do? Even in legal states, there is still a lot to do in terms of getting cannabis laws to a place where there isn’t any harm to people using cannabis.

What Are Some of the Issues That Still Need Attention?

A big issue that I see SSDP still working on — and that is an issue in states that have legal cannabis — is expungements of cannabis records. People who have previously been arrested when cannabis was illegal still have those charges on their records, and those charges can cause discrimination in employment. They could deny people housing and education opportunities.

It can cause a lot of stigma to people and their everyday lives. And we must look at those charges and remove them from people’s records. Just passing legalization laws doesn’t erase the previous harms automatically.

There’s also the issue of reparations for people who have experienced harm. People who were harmed by cannabis prohibition in the past deserve to be compensated for that harm.

Another critical issue is that the industry we have right now is becoming so profitable and large, and often, the people making the most money are not those who were previously impacted by it. Those people should have an opportunity to make money in the industry as much as anyone else should — if not more so.

Regulations around medical cannabis are still being worked on in a lot of states, too. There are still a lot of restrictive medical cannabis laws in places like Pennsylvania, where I live, where you can’t buy edibles at stores.

When we talk about things like bodily autonomy, the right to health, and patient choice, those are still really critical issues for medical patients who are trying to get the medicine and the care that they need but are being denied that because of the regulations at the state level.

This can push people back to the unregulated market where, as we know, there could be more dangerous products that other people are getting, or they could be paying more than what they should be paying.

I think it’s imperative not to look at cannabis legalization as the end goal but to understand the complete picture of what it means to have cannabis legal and regulated in our society and push for ideal regulations and laws to help people get the access they need while also reducing the harms of the past.

What Are the Barriers Marginalized Groups Face in Getting Access to Medical Cannabis?

A couple of things I mentioned before were housing and employment discrimination and drug testing. A lot of states still have this gray area about whether having a medical cannabis card protects you from being discriminated against at your place of work. Can you be drug tested? And what does that mean if you have a medical card?

There’s also the barrier of cost, too. Getting a medical card can be expensive, and purchasing cannabis can be costly depending on what state you’re in and even what town you’re in.

When we’re talking about medicine, it’s important to scale it to make it affordable for people depending on their community. This includes having insurance be able to cover medical cannabis, both for a certification appointment and the medicine itself, which is something that hopefully will be helped by the federal rescheduling.

People like to use the expression that it’s expensive to be poor. It rings true here since we have a housing crisis right now in this country. People are struggling to find affordable housing but also need to afford their medicine. Sometimes, people are forced to choose one or the other. That shouldn’t be the case.

How Can Advocacy Groups Work to Eliminate These Barriers?

The information about what is right and what is wrong is only sometimes readily available. And sometimes, I believe, even actively withheld. I think it’s essential for companies like Leafwell, and also other advocacy groups, to be forefront at that education component, to try to teach people that, ‘Hey, just because you have a prior arrest doesn’t mean that you can’t get a medical card right now.’

I think the more that we can make it affordable, the more accessible it will be in terms of allowing more permits for dispensaries to open up, to allow more options and patient choice. That’s only going to help increase access, and it’s especially going to help increase access in the most marginalized communities.

Legalization Is Just The Beginning

The end goal around what we do in cannabis advocacy shouldn’t be — and isn’t just — cannabis legalization, and now it’s over. That extends to cannabis but also extends to the broader War on Drugs, which is all interconnected here.

There is a long history of systemic oppression that has been caused by cannabis prohibition. Cannabis prohibition has its origins in that as well, in terms of being first passed in the 1930s as a way to legally discriminate against Latino and Black communities, especially immigrant communities.

That legacy of harm still exists today, even when we are changing laws. And I think it’s vital that as cannabis becomes more accepted and well-known — and as advocacy becomes more effective and successful — we don’t lose the target of what we’re trying to achieve here.

We don’t leave people behind at the end of the day. I’m inspired by many different advocacy groups, such as SSDP and the Marijuana Policy Project, that are trying to put those communities at the front and center of everything they do and recognize that there is a history of harm we are trying to reverse.

It takes a lot of time, work, and multi-generational efforts. Still, as long as we understand that that’s the end goal, I’m encouraged by what we’re seeing regarding how widespread cannabis advocacy is becoming.

It’s interesting because when I joined SSDP, cannabis was an edgy issue that people were almost afraid to get involved with. I don’t feel that’s the case anymore. I hope people can maintain the community focus and the same energy level as they always have moving forward and keep those original advocates and thought leaders in our minds.

Favorite Cannabis Policy Reform Organizations

A few of my favorites are the Last Prisoner Project — a fantastic organization helping reduce mass incarceration and get people out of prison. They do a lot with marijuana prohibition and the War on Drugs in general.

An organization that’s working a lot on harm reduction is Next Distro. They distribute naloxone to people via online mailings and also do naloxone training. If you’re interested in harm reduction, check them out as well.

I also want to give a shout-out to the ACLU because they provide a lot of the information that advocates still use to fight against these laws. They’re doing a lot of good work to address the civil rights issues that emerge with prohibition and the reparations issues I mentioned.

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and readability. Stay tuned for more Behind the Leafwell Curtain interviews, and check out ourpatient stories series on YouTube to hear medical marijuana patients talk about their journeys with cannabis in their own words.

Published: 2/14/23

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