With the decline of newspapers in print form, many boxes once used to sell the papers stand empty now, relics of the past.
In some places across the country, newspaper boxes have been repurposed as stands for record players and as art installations. They’ve been used to hold things like free books — and now, in Montgomery County, to distribute applications for pardons of marijuana convictions.
The county chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Montco NORML) and TerraVida Victims of the War on Drugs (VOWD), the nonprofit arm of a local chain of medical marijuana dispensaries, have teamed up to fill refurbished newspaper bins with cannabis pardon applications free of cost.
“These pardon bins have been a great win for us,” said Cathie Cashman, head of TerraVida VOWD.
The first bin was placed outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown back in April. In December, the two groups placed one in front of the Lansdale Public Library. To date, the initiative has provided Pennsylvania’s 18-page pardon application to more than 800 people hoping to have their records expunged.
“I think it’s fantastic. We already have an expedited marijuana pardon protocol in place, where if it meets a couple key criteria they automatically advance through,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said in an interview Saturday. Fetterman is an advocate of legalizing recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania. “But what we’re also looking into is the constitutionality of doing that on a macro basis.”
Since being established in 2018, Montco NORML has been advocating for the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, and one of the group’s major efforts has been to educate the public about Pennsylvania’s Expedited Review Program for marijuana convictions.
In fact, that’s what drew Geoff Smith, the director of Montco NORML, to the organization in the first place. He described his now-dismissed 2016 marijuana case as a “crucifixion.”
“I was treated as a criminal, and when all this was over and done, no one told me that there was a cannabis pardon,” Smith said.
He believes there is a great need for pardons because of the damaging effect criminalization of marijuana use can have on a person’s life.
“People still have these past experiences that hold them up from getting a job, getting a loan, anything,” Smith said.
Fetterman said the time is now for people to get their records expunged.
“If you’ve got a stupid weed conviction on your record, you’ve got to get it off. It’s crazy not to. There’s never a better time and, we have an expedited process for that,” Fetterman said.
Smith has been trying to get the word out ever since. After a while, the organization noticed huge demand for expungement education, he said, so it wondered if there was any way to cut out the middleman.
“Why don’t we make a location where this can be so easily accessible for people who really need it?” Smith said.
The original pardon bin concept was thought of back in 2019, after Norristown passed an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana. Montco NORML sponsored an event called Decrim Norristown and initially planned on launching the bin at the event, but timing was an issue. The decision to use a newspaper box was set in stone, though. Because print newspapers are “not a thing anymore,” Smith said, adding that the boxes are readily available.
“We actually had an old newspaper bin that we had that somebody gave us. We refurbished it, we repainted it, and we got the decals for it, and we stuck it out there in Norristown,” Smith said. “Since then, we fill them every single week. The thing is almost empty every week.”
The second bin was placed in Lansdale after a discussion Montco NORML had with the director of the public library.
“The library director … was totally on board for it,” Smith said.
The next bin will be placed on the southbound side of SEPTA’s Ambler Train Station.
“The bin is actually sitting out in our parking lot, and that is scheduled to be dropped early, middle of next week,” Smith said.
After Ambler, the next stop is King of Prussia, but the organizations have their sights set on filling refurbished news boxes across the state with marijuana pardon applications. Montco NORML has already received donations to set up boxes in western Pennsylvania.
“We have like a list we got here, and we’re just going to go down the list and put one out in every part of Pennsylvania,” Smith said.
While Montco NORML plans the operation, TerraVida VOWD is serving as a financial motor. The nonprofit is funded by TerraVida Holistic Centers, a women-owned local chain of medical marijuana dispensaries.
The leaders of Montco NORML and TerraVida met at Fetterman’s 67-county marijuana tour in 2019. TerraVida joined the newspaper bin initiative after hearing about it on Facebook.
“It just became this happy friendship,” Smith said.
TerraVida was founded in 2017 by Chirs Visco, and the nonprofit arm was created in 2019.
“We were founded … under the premise of really helping people who were victimized by the war on drugs,” Cashman said.
A white woman, Cashman spoke candidly about the racial elephant in the room: the irony of white people profiting from marijuana sales while people of color remain incarcerated for virtually the same thing.
“People are literally in prison for the amount of medical marijuana that I may have in my purse right now,” Cashman said. “And that’s very sobering for lack of a better word.”
That acknowledgment is not exclusive to Cashman. Visco, she said, “is very aware … that she is a white woman who is making a very nice living off of this plant that has disproportionately affected people of color in the war on drugs.”
With that in mind, Cashman said, TerraVida VOWD has made it its mission to help Pennsylvanians expunge their records of marijuana convictions.
“We really can’t lose the idea that there is this whole social justice piece and this whole social equity piece that we need to continually keep in front of us, because this isn’t just a venture capitalist game here. This isn’t just for people to get richer off of. We have to remember that there’s this social justice aspect that it is our responsibility as owners and operators in the state to support and push forward,” Cashman said.
“While the pardon bins may seem like something very small,” she said, “it’s something that we feel at TerraVida is something we should do and continue to do.”