It is no exaggeration to say that being convicted for a marijuana-related crime could ruin your life; especially in the United States. In some states, all it takes is a few minor weed convictions to be on the wrong end of a lengthy prison sentence. Even if you escape jail time, the stain on your record could block access to employment, scholarships, and even publicly funded housing.
Despite the growing number of states that have legalized weed, the herb is federally illegal. Therefore, if you have been convicted of any cannabis crime, even simple possession, it will show up on your criminal record; ensuring the deck is stacked against you forever. There have been calls to expunge these minor marijuana crimes, and thankfully, a few states seem to be getting on board.
Even though cannabis use is becoming more socially acceptable, the number of pot arrests is increasing according to FBI data. In 2017, almost 660,000 people were arrested on a marijuana-related charge. Almost 600,000 of them were for possession. Total arrests increased by over 6,000 compared to 2016 figures. Remarkably, arrests for possession increased by 12,000!
Then there is the racial aspect. Black Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at almost four times the rate of their white counterparts despite using the herb at roughly the same rates. Latinos are also disproportionately targeted. In New York, weed possession arrests fell by over 30% from 2014 to 2016. However, 86% of these arrests were of Latinos and black people.
It seems preposterous that law enforcement continues to waste precious time and resources to ruin people’s lives, and it is high time that people convicted of minor cannabis crimes have them stricken from their criminal record.
Which States Are Expunging Marijuana-Related Crimes?
We’re happy to say that the answer is ‘quite a few’.
In June 2019, JB Pritzker, the Governor of Illinois, signed HB 1438, which made cannabis legal in the state for adults aged 21+, starting from January 1, 2020. Even more importantly, perhaps, the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act has made provisions to grant clemency to individuals convicted of possessing up to 30 grams of weed.
If you were convicted of carrying more than 30 grams but less than 500 grams, you could petition a court to see if you can get the charge lifted. According to HB 1438, expunge means physically destroying records or returning them to the petitioner. Also, your name will be obliterated from any public record or official index. The Marijuana Policy Project estimates that 770,000 residents of Illinois could benefit from the new law.
For the record, the bill also has a ‘social equity program’ which helps individuals with marijuana convictions to get business licenses. $12 million has been set aside to aid cannabis-related start-ups in the state, and there is also funding available for employment training programs within the Illinois legal weed industry.
Over in Washington state, Governor Inslee signed SB 5605 in May 2019. The bill is called Concerning Marijuana Offense Convictions and went into effect on July 28, 2019. From that day onward, any person aged 21+ convicted of a misdemeanor possession offense in the state can apply to the sentencing court to have the record expunged.
Therefore, if you were convicted at Benton County District Court, for example, you must apply at that specific court. If you have several convictions from different Washington courts, you need to apply to each court separately. Under the rules of SB 5605, the conviction needs to have happened between January 1, 1998, and December 5, 2012. State records suggest that 3,500 people are eligible.
Please note that your marijuana conviction must be the only conviction type on your record. You must also have been prosecuted under Washington state law and NOT a local ordinance. Click on this link to learn more about the process.
If you don’t meet the criteria for the Marijuana Justice Initiative, you can seek clemency for other Washington state law convictions by getting in touch with the Clemency and Pardons Board.
In the Golden State, marijuana became fully legal for adults at the beginning of 2018. In August 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1793 into law. Its purpose is to resentence and destroy prior marijuana conviction records as per Proposition 64, the bill that legalized recreational weed.
The law says that California’s Department of Justice is required to look through state criminal histories to find cases eligible for review and resentencing. Once a case is found, it is given to the district attorney who prosecuted it. The DA in question can challenge any case they believe should not be eligible for a downgraded conviction but must do so before July 1, 2020.
While Proposition 64 included a provision to release any prisoner serving time for a marijuana-related crime, it had no process in place to help expunge criminal records. If you had been arrested for a minor marijuana crime such as possession, you had to go through a long and expensive record review process. One million people were eligible, but in 2017, only 4,500 applied!
Individual communities began picking up the slack to help expunge these records. One DA, George Gascon, couldn’t believe that only 23 people in his district applied for the record review process out of thousands of eligible individuals. In December 2017, he began reducing marijuana charges and sealing records. Soon, he announced thousands of dismissals going back as far as 1975!
AB 1793 is a huge improvement, but it is still a long process. Unfortunately, if you are hoping to your conviction wiped away, you’ll probably have to wait until 2020 at least. This is a problem because it impacts housing rights, employment, the right to vote, and the ability to get an occupational license.
If you have been convicted of a marijuana crime, whether it is an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony, between January 1, 1976, and the announcement of Proposition 64, obtain a copy of your rap sheet. Annoyingly, you have to get the record from the DA’s office or courthouse in the county you were convicted in.
Once you have a copy of the charges, file a petition with the court, requesting a change in your record. In California, your petition gets prioritized if you file it yourself. You’ll probably have to hire an attorney although you can avail of services such as One Justice, the Drug Policy Alliance, or Root and Rebound; all of which do great work.
The next step involves providing notice that you have served the petition to the relevant DA. At this point, you’re classified as a party to the petition. The DA can respond and file their response with the court. While you may be unlucky and be forced to wait until there is a hearing on it, most counties don’t bother. The judge will then make a decision based on the information received, circumstances of the case, and your eligibility.
If you committed a code violation four or more times, if there were violations of the environment code, or if the crime involved a minor, you may not receive your sentence reduction or expungement.
Since 2017, 20 states have either added laws or expanded on existing ones to help people move on from a criminal record. Indiana’s Second Chance Law predates recent changes as it was introduced in 2013. It doesn’t directly relate to marijuana, but it does allow residents to petition to remove arrests and misdemeanor convictions from the public record.
Given the number of people in the state who have been arrested for a marijuana-related misdemeanor, it has helped provide a lot of people with a much-needed break.
In New Jersey, it is hoped that marijuana will be legalized recreationally. In the meantime, residents with a marijuana-related conviction can apply to have their record expunged. In this case, it may be worth getting in touch with a well-respected legal firm within the state.
In Michigan in July 2019, Senator Jeff Irwin introduced legislation to expunge the records of those convicted of possession and use of weed. The bill is similar to what has happened in California, and aims to clear low-level cannabis crimes; a sensible option in a state where the residents have voted to legalize recreational pot. If passed into law, it will allow 235,000 people to have misdemeanor records for use and possession automatically expunged.
At present, it is possible to go down the DIY expungement route, but only 6% of eligible individuals have tried it. As was the case in California, time and expense were the limiting factors.
In Massachusetts, there is also the option to file for a petition to get weed-related crimes removed from your record. Click on this link to learn more.
In Denver, Colorado, the process is a lot slower. By the end of March 2019, the city had only accepted 38 out of 10,000 eligible applicants after two months! Once again, the problem with asking people to do it themselves is that the entire process is long, stressful, confusing, and expensive. The average person needs to pay for an attorney to help.
Common Sense Will Prevail
In the end, we hope and believe that the entire mess will eventually be sorted out. States such as Illinois and California have realized the necessity of clearing the records of people convicted of marijuana crimes. It makes no sense to devastate a person’s life for something that is no longer a crime within a state and should never have been one in the first place.
There are many genuinely heart-breaking stories. Fate Winslow is currently serving life without parole in Louisiana for the ‘crime’ of selling $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop. Worse still, he was the middleman and would have earned $5 for his trouble. The main dealer wasn’t even arrested. While Winslow had a criminal record, all of his offenses were of the non-violent kind.
In states where the expungement of marijuana-related crimes has been implemented, thousands of people have benefited already. Lorenze Lanier spent the best part of a decade going in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses; mainly for selling. He found it incredibly hard to get a job, although he was eventually employed as an overnight stocker at Walmart; a position with no real chance of advancement.
In 2018, Lanier got in touch with NDICA, a group in Southern California who specialize in helping people of color in the cannabis industry. NDICA helped Lanier expunge his eight minor convictions, and now, he has a real chance of landing an equity license in Los Angeles; a process that would give him a chance to open up a marijuana dispensary.
Compare Lanier’s prospects with those of Winslow and the myriad of people locked away for non-violent marijuana offenses. While Lanier now has hope, Winslow is destined to spend a life behind bars.
October 2018 saw the first-ever ‘expungement week’ in the United States. Events and clinics were held in 10+ U.S. cities including Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Clinics help people as they try to navigate the confusing expungement process. Organizations such as NDICA have helped tens of thousands of people to date. However, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if states where weed was legal simply completed the process automatically?