Julia Ruiz: Cannabis Possession Charge to Cannabis Industry Professional

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We first profiled Julia Ruiz in 2019, “Julia Ruiz: From Patient to Advocate”. We thought it was time to revisit with her following Virginia recently legalizing cannabis adult-use with reforms to its possession laws. Julia served 45 days 2018 in a Virginia jail for a cannabis possession charge.

Jacquie Cohen Roth, MS (JCR): Your personal story with cannabis is incredibly impactful for a number of reasons including being incarcerated for cannabis possession for 45 days in a Virginia jail.

How do you feel today with Virginia legalizing cannabis?

Julia Ruiz (JR): I’m overjoyed because this isn’t going what happened to me isn’t going to continue to happen to people, so I’m overjoyed that’s the case.

However, making felons wait until twenty, twenty-five until we start reviewing expunging their records, I just I think that there must be an easier way. And California did automatic expungement.  I have a close friend who actually did become a felon due to a marijuana case. And he actually tweeted he at (Virginia Governor) Ralph Northam,

“This is great but remember when you arrested me and gave me a felony for the same thing, you know?”

So, yeah, while it’s amazing and we’re making amazing progress, especially for a southern state. Yet, there’s definitely so much work to be done. And that’s why I see myself in the cannabis industry for the rest of my life is that there’s so much work to be done to undo the harm of prohibition.

JCR: Virginia has quite a legacy with cannabis including the first settlement in the colonies, Jamestown. The settlers landed in Jamestown in 1607 and with them, came cannabis. Jamestown was the first settlement in what became the thirteen original colonies. August 20, 1619, the first slaves were brought to Jamestown.

By that same year, 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp. By 1762, penalties were imposed on farmers who didn’t grow hemp.

Given its history as a southern state and with that, very troubling history of slave ownership and prejudice, do you believe that racial bias has been impacting Virginia’s possession laws? And, how about your personal story?

JR: As far as I know, New York actually had some of the most racially biased. Yeah, because of the stop and frisk and everything. However, I do believe, racism played a major role in Virginia’s prohibition of cannabis. Does me having a Hispanic last name have anything to do with the outcome of my off of my legal case? I still don’t know that. And I’ll never really have a clear-cut answer on that.

I think a lot of it. And my friend who got the felony has a Hispanic last name. Are these things racially motivated? I think that’s we’re never going to get a clear-cut answer on that. But going forward, at least the fact that I know Hispanic people and African-American people and people of color, in general, aren’t going to be specifically targeted for something that’s so ridiculous. I think it’s heartening. It’s encouraging, especially with the industry going the way it is. And Virginia has some of the best education in the country.

If if they choose to tax and regulate cannabis and put that money into schools, then I can’t imagine how amazing the education would be. I went K through 12 in the Commonwealth of Virginia and I believe I got an amazing education from the Commonwealth.

I do have a beef with Virginia, but at the same time, like, it was an amazing place to grow up. So it’s a lot of mixed feelings today for sure.

JCR: Virginia was one of the earliest states to lead to allow physicians to prescribe it, a law passed in 1979 legislation passed allowing doctors to recommend cannabis for glaucoma or the side effects of chemotherapy. Yet, the law was not functioning because of cannabis classification as a Schedule 1 drug.

It might have been 2015 when I had the opportunity to sit down with then-lieutenant Governor Ralph Northman for the physician magazine I was publishing at that time. I learned that he was then still practicing as a pediatric hospice physician.  I wonder what the impact of him being a hospice, a pediatric hospice physician has had on his views about medical cannabis. He must understand the positive impact medical cannabis can have on hospice patients and pediatric patients suffering from complex seizure disorders. How can you not after the Charlotte Figi story? It’s hospice patients in general, we have to be able to get this medicine to people. I can’t help not think about that, it has had to have had an impact on his approach. Absolutely, and he’s had an interesting run as governor, he’s definitely had his fair share of scandal.

Going forward, at least the fact that I know Hispanic people and African-American people and people of color, in general, aren’t going to be specifically targeted for something that’s so ridiculous. I think it’s heartening. It’s encouraging, especially with
the industry going the way it is.

Julia Ruiz

JR: Yeah, I think I think at least with the cannabis law reformations, I think he can hope his legacy is with that. At least I’m sure he’s hoping that as well.

JCR: Right. You don’t want to live with that. Same thing as (Governor) Cuomo (D – New York). All of a sudden the attention about his sexual harassment accusations certainly got quieted down with the cannabis legalization in New York.

JR: I can’t help but see these politicians use cannabis reform as a kind of bread and circuses. You know, give them some weed and they’ll turn a blind eye. I do find that time and time again we get these huge wins amidst some other scandal. It is definitely not the first time. I mean, you have to take the ones where they come. Absolutely. Yeah. But it’s interesting how cannabis is still being used as leverage, really.

JCR: Agreed. I have such mixed feelings about Maryland not legalizing adult-use this session. It’s frustrating that the states all around us are legalizing cannabis. And then I read about how Maryland casinos had this record month last month (March 2021) and the legislature’s support of the gaming industry. We know how many lives gaming has saved and cost.

JR: I will say I did not predict this correctly because I absolutely thought that Maryland was going to have homegrow before Virginia. That actually was one of the major decision-makers in my choosing where I bought my home. So now I have a home in Maryland with a beautiful yard where I’m not legally able to grow cannabis. And right across the water, all my friends are in Northern Virginia and they’re going to be able to grow cannabis before me. So, yeah, definitely, definitely wasn’t expecting that one.

 JCR: At first I thought that legalization would not happen in Maryland in the 2021 session and then again, with all the social equity initiatives that were in the Senate bill, in the House bill, I thought OK, maybe it will happen this year; let alone that it should happen. I was executive director of the growers and processors trade association in Maryland, and these guys spent a great deal of money fighting HB2 which was intended to create equity in Maryland’s industry with additional licenses going to those most disadvantaged in the first round of licenses, Black women and Native American women. Did it fix the situation? Nope.

I can’t help but see these politicians use cannabis reform as a kind of bread and circuses“

Julia Ruiz

And, now those same mostly undiversified cannabis companies are making money hand over fist in the industry as a quote-unquote, medical market. In a medical program, the patients should have access to cannabis at a reasonable price and the opportunity to grow their own medicine. It infuriates to see brands like the Cookies brand and how they’re marketed in a “medical” state. This is “medicine”?!

JR: Right? The Cookies. When I was working in Maryland, in the dispensary the Cookie was the “thing” and it befuddled me. I really didn’t understand it because people would come in and they would just be enraged if they couldn’t get their hands on those Cookies. I would look them in the eye and I’d say, “I can name five other strains that are going to be less expensive and are going to take care of your symptoms better than that.” And what would be the response? It’s amazing what marketing can do. They just wanted to be able to get their hands on it, take a picture of it, and put it on their Instagram story.

I get it. I’ve definitely delved into the luxury cannabis world to treat myself a time or two. But what I found is that these brands, it’s in the packaging. You can get so swept up in packaging and marketing. Really great cannabis is still pretty easy to come by in Maryland. And I found at least at the dispensary where I worked, we would give people, I mean, a pretty good deal, all things considered.

Now, should we have homegrow? Absolutely. People should be able to grow their medicine at home and not have to spend a bunch of money in a dispensary. But I do think at least if we’re going to compare like Maryland to, say, D.C., for example, there was still some cost-effectiveness. There were ways to buy medicine in a way that was cost-effective.

JCR: What now are your professional goals in the industry? And, how about a prediction for federal legalization?

 JR: My professional goal is to become a full-time consultant for cannabis companies for their marketing and public relations needs. And, I think we’ll get federal legalization within two years!

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