Vireo Health received such positive feedback on an expungement clinic it helped bring to fruition last year at Maryland-based dispensary Mary & Main that the company has since hosted several more events at its dispensaries across the country to assist individuals in clearing their records of past cannabis-related convictions.
“We really made a commitment to expanding it to all of our states in which we’re operational and just keeping that momentum going,” Dr. Paloma Lehfeldt, MD and Director of Medical Education at Vireo Health, tells Cannabis Dispensary.
Since the successful expungement clinic at Mary & Main in Capitol Heights, Md., last fall, which was held in collaboration with Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), Vireo Health has held additional clinics at its dispensaries in Maryland, Arizona and Minnesota through its Green Goods retail brand.
In September alone, the company is hosting, sponsoring or otherwise participating in four separate expungement clinics, starting with an event on Sept. 11 in Vireo’s home state of Minnesota that Lehfeldt says was the first of its kind in the state.
The company partnered with the Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Reentry Clinic, which had its director and several attorneys on-site at Vireo’s Minneapolis dispensary for the expungement clinic.
“We’re very lucky to have ancillary space in our dispensary where we were able to host the clinic,” Lehfeldt says, adding that the event took place in the store’s basement. “We were able to see 44 individuals that day and we were really just inspired by the people’s stories.”
One inspirational story, she says, centered on a man in Minneapolis who has been burdened with a low-level cannabis conviction for 25 years.
“He is actually one of our patients in Minneapolis and heard about the clinic while he was shopping at the dispensary,” Lehfeldt says. “He came downstairs and began the process to expunge that conviction from his record. Not only are these people burdened by the costs of legal fees, but also, they don’t want to deal with lawyers and people in the criminal justice system. But because they were there for that day, he was able to come down.”
Following the Minneapolis clinic, Vireo partnered with Women of Color Worldwide to sponsor the New York-based organization’s first expungement clinic in that state, which is an ongoing effort that will last the entire month of September.
Then, on Sept. 18, Vireo hosted a virtual expungement clinic from its dispensary in Frederick, Md., in partnership with the law firm Funk & Bolton, LLP.
This coming weekend, on Sept. 25, the company will host its final expungement clinic this month, which will see Vireo return to Mary & Main in Capitol Heights, Md., in collaboration with M4MM.
“We’re really finishing this month strong with the one-year anniversary of our first expungement clinic,” Lehfeldt says.
With so many of these events underway, Vireo has learned a thing or two about planning and executing a successful expungement clinic. Here, Lehfeldt and Albe Zakes, the company’s VP of corporate communications, share their top tips.
1. Make sure your staff supports the cause.
According to Lehfeldt and Zakes, a critical aspect of any successful expungement clinic is a supportive staff.
Vireo’s 1937 brand is dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion, Lehfeldt says, which raises awareness for cannabis prohibition in the U.S. and the consequences of the war on drugs—and gets the conversation started around expungement.
“It’s amazing to see our staff dedicated and amazing to see, on the state level, people who really want to end the war on drugs,” she says. “[We] see firsthand how this affected communities [with] the psychological burden of carrying these convictions, which is arguably more detrimental to these people compared to the legal and financial ramifications from these lifelong convictions. But just seeing the response and how this is really affecting and changing these people’s lives has really elevated our staff and really put our messaging behind who we are as a company.”
Internal buy-in is arguably as important as external buy-in from the community that is participating in the clinics, Zakes adds, especially on the executive level.
“I think to make these events important, it can’t just be one team working on it,” he says. “It has to be the entire company behind it. And I think that’s what’s made these events so successful, is everyone at Vireo, from corporate to the retail teams, has all wanted to be involved. [At] our Minneapolis event last weekend, some of the most senior people at our company were there working the registration desk, making sure everyone got checked in OK. I think that kind of buy-in at all levels of the company has really helped us secure successful events.”
2. Collaborate with passionate legal partners.
Many times, attorneys approach Vireo and express interest in participating in the expungement clinics, Lehfeldt says, but the company does try to collaborate with passionate legal partners that can bring a certain level of trust to the events.
“These attorneys don’t want to see these people carrying around these lifelong convictions at all, so they’re incredibly excited to dedicate their time to righting these wrongs from ancient legislation,” she says.
“Whether it’s the state’s district attorney offices or whether it’s a law school, it really helps to bring a lot of authenticity and gravitas and trust to the events, both when you’re doing your PR outreach around it … and then I think for our participants, as well, knowing that there are actual lawyers that are going to be in attendance, knowing that there are people from government who are going to be there,” Zakes adds. “I think it helps give everyone in the community confidence and helps to legitimize the event. I think finding partners that are well-known names or are perhaps well-connected … is a good way to make sure people want to be involved in the event.”
3. Be creative—and clear—in your marketing efforts.
Vireo sent information about its upcoming expungement clinics to its database of patients, as well as patients registered in the states’ medical cannabis programs, but Zakes says it was important to highlight that the events are open to anyone eligible for expungement in the states where the events are held, not just registered medical cannabis patients.
It can be challenging for Vireo to have non-patients in its dispensaries due to state regulations, Lehfeldt adds, but that is where virtual clinics, as well as expungement clinics held in adjacent facilities—such as the basement of Vireo’s Minneapolis dispensary—come in handy.
Zakes says it is also important to spread the word about who is eligible for expungement, as people with open or overly complicated cases may not qualify.
“It’s just making sure that you’re really making it clear to folks who can come and be involved and who might not be eligible and making sure that you drive good participation rates through the communications,” he says.
Vireo also promoted the expungement clinics on its social media pages through custom graphics, as well as in its dispensaries through in-store signage. Retail staff were also educated on the events so that they could share the information with Vireo’s patients at the point of sale.
Local TV stations have provided another effective marketing outlet for the company, Zakes says. Reporters in Phoenix, Frederick and Minneapolis came out the day before the expungement clinics and ran stories on the events on the evening news to garner local attention.
4. Don’t sacrifice customer service.
Lehfeldt says it’s critical that the expungement clinics do not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the dispensary, but that they also serve those coming in to take advantage of the one-on-one time with attorneys who can help them clear their records.
“We have a robust pre-registration process, so people sign up for a time slot,” Lehfeldt says. “It can take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on which step they are on in their process when they come into the clinic. We’re making sure that everyone is coming in during those times, maintaining social distance, making sure that the attorneys have enough dedicated time with the individual that’s coming in.”
Typically, three to five attorneys are available during the expungement clinics, and Vireo ensures that each person attending the events gets one-on-one time with an attorney during their entire half-hour time slot.
5. Educate yourself about your state’s expungement laws.
Who is eligible for expungement—and what that expungement process looks like—varies by state, which Lehfeldt says “adds another layer of nuance to the clinics.”
In Minnesota, for example, she estimates there are roughly 53,000 people with low-level cannabis convictions that are eligible for expungement, whereas in Maryland, it’s about quadruple that number, with roughly 200,000 individuals eligible for expungement.
“Minnesota specifically includes more legal fees compared to Maryland, unfortunately, so we really look into the laws in every state that we’re doing it in,” Lehfeldt says. “They don’t make it easy, unfortunately, but we do our best to really help everyone based on the state and the victimless cannabis charges they possess. … We just try to read up and become experts as best we can before we start the process."