Featuring Tamara Netzel, founder and curator of Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law

Q: How did you come to be involved in cannabis legalization and justice? And what is Cruel Consequences?

Tamara Netzel: I am a medical cannabis patient and began treating my Multiple Sclerosis after conventional treatment caused my liver to go into failure. I had been taking more than 15 different medications to treat MS symptoms, so, because my liver was involved, I could no longer take any of these. The thought that all my symptoms would progress and I would have no relief was depressing. Someone suggested cannabis, and it has improved my life in many ways since. 

I became an advocate and testified several times in my state of Virginia for medical law reform since 2017. I knew I wanted medical cannabis for myself, but I didn’t know anything about the laws or what legalization was all about. I think I had even said back then that medical cannabis was enough for me, but I never advocated for legalization. I bought into the stigma myself. I didn’t know what happened to people charged for marijuana possession and I didn’t know anybody who had been criminalized, so that fed into how I felt. I was medically retired as a middle school teacher after my liver failure, and my husband is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, so my life before cannabis was the furthest from anything to do with cannabis. I assumed that my government must have it right to criminalize these individuals, but I never bothered to learn more about it. 

So, when I started to meet people in person who told me their stories of getting arrested for cannabis, I started to ask why these stories aren’t told. These people are just like you and me. And it was most egregious for me to learn about the collateral consequences to an arrest or conviction. Whether you get probation or a life sentence for cannabis, everyone suffers a life sentence of consequences like denial of employment, housing, and child custody, not to mention the shame people get from those around them. I had some media coverage of my own cannabis journey with local news and NBC Dateline, and telling my story was effective in changing laws. This and my own experience of judging those criminalized before I saw them as human beings and my background in photography gave me an idea to create Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law. 

It’s designed to be a traveling portrait exhibit, and I have been taking the portraits around the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) since 2018 to educate the community in the way that I learned. I feel the stigma of criminalization of cannabis is a huge part of changing the laws for the better. Cruel Consequences puts a human face to the issue, and we have changed many hearts and minds by allowing viewers to consider the human being behind the typical headline of a person getting arrested and going to jail for possession of cannabis. We have been able to educate on this issue through booking events as an art exhibit, and in turn reaching members of the community who don’t normally talk about cannabis but are drawn in for the portrait art. We have displayed our portraits in some unique places to educate, for instance, a yoga studio, college classes, and political events. Currently, our portraits are displayed in our state General Assembly. 

During the pandemic, we have not been able to have many in-person events, so we have pivoted to taking orders for permanent exhibits in cannabis businesses. We currently have sets of our portraits in six different cannabis businesses across the U.S. Several of our portrait participants have been mobilized as advocates by telling their stories and now help in advocacy by speaking at events and the media. Most of them were ashamed to let anyone know about their past, but telling their stories has empowered them to do more.

Our mission: We encourage communities to question assumptions and have open conversations to replace the negative stereotyped images of marijuana criminalization that keep Americans from Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Q: Explain the sort of “us versus them” dynamic at play here. Why is it important to share these stories, particularly from people of color?

TN: It is critical to tell these stories to educate and counter the decades of miseducation about cannabis, and because people of color are criminalized four times more, the stigma is much worse, thus the punishment tends to be worse. People of color are targeted more, and this makes it an issue of racism. We try to cover stories that are diverse in many ways, and many of our portrait stories serve to show the stark contrast of how one’s skin color plays into a person’s case, from charges to conviction and collateral consequences afterward. We’ve worked with college students and presented our stories without the portrait that matches them, having two very similar charges but a very different punishment. Then we reveal how the white person got the lesser punishment. It has been remarkable to see a person realize this when they compare our portrait stories.

Q: How can people and businesses support your work?

TN: We are a 501c3 nonprofit and operate solely by donations to educate and spread our message. Donations can be made through our website cruelconsequences.org, and businesses can give a suggested tax exempt donation to order their own beautiful canvas wrapped-style Cruel Consequences portrait exhibit with accompanying story plaques. Contact us at cruelconsequences@gmail.com for more information.

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