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Slowly but Surely, Efforts Mount to Expunge Old Cannabis Convictions

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PHOTO Florian Christoph

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Slowly but Surely, Efforts Mount to Expunge Old Cannabis Convictions

With cannabis now legal in 10 U.S. states as well as Canada, demands are growing to wipe out past convictions for personal possession. Politicians have started to respond — but not fast enough for some advocates.

A cannabis conviction can follow you around even after you’ve done your time or paid your fine. Your record may come back to haunt you when you apply for a job or an apartment, even if you live in a state when the “crime” you committed is no longer a crime. But change is coming, slowly, for at least a segment of the affected population.

Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee on Jan. 9 signed the first pardons under the “Marijuana Justice Initiative” he announced at the start of the year. According to his office, some 3,500 people may ultimately apply and win a pardon without having to hire a lawyer or go to court. Inslee said the initiative will “help relieve the burden of misdemeanors for marijuana possession and allow people to move on with their lives.”

“We have people who have this burden on their shoulders from a simple, one-time marijuana possession from maybe 20 years ago, and that’s impeding the ability of people to live their lives,” Inslee told Seattle’s King5 News. “It can damage their ability to get financing for a home; it can damage their ability to get financing for colleges, even simple things like going on a field trip with your kids.”

Pardon Versus Expungement

Inslee’s actions come in response to activist pressure. He unveiled the initiative at the Jan. 4 Seattle summit of the Cannabis Alliance, one of the activist groups that had been pushing for the program.

The Marijuana Justice Initiative website states: “In Washington state, it is no longer considered criminal behavior for adults to possess a small amount of marijuana for personal use. The governor’s Marijuana Justice Initiative intends to recognize the evolution of the state’s beliefs about marijuana and, within existing capacity, provide clemency relief to some who have these convictions on their records.”

The initiative will attempt to speed up the pardon granting process to people with a single misdemeanor conviction on their criminal record for adult marijuana possession under Washington state law.

But the program is actually a cautious and limited one. To be eligible, Washingtonians must have been convicted as an adult, and the conviction must be the only one on record.

More significantly, as a critical view on Cowlitz County’s The Daily News makes clear, a pardon is not the same as expungement. Getting a conviction expunged from the record and the sentence formally vacated requires court action under state law. With a pardon from the governor, offenders will still have to answer “yes” when asked on housing or employment application forms if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, although they can clarify that they’ve received executive clemency.

A Question for Several States

In Maine, which voted to legalize in 2016, four state legislators are currently pushing bills to expunge or seal the records of those with past cannabis convictions.

But there is a distinction here, too. As the Portland Press Herald explains, two of the bills call for expungement, while the other two bills call for sealing cases, which means rendering the convictions invisible to prospective employers and the public without actually deleting them from the record.

In Nevada, which also voted to legalize in 2016, commissioners in Clark County, which covers Las Vegas, are working with District Attorney Steve Wolfson to wipe out minor cannabis convictions. Commissioner Tick Segerblom is calling for a law to expunge such convictions statewide. “Whatever they did at the time is now legal. I don’t think they should be punished for something that is currently legal,” Segerblom told local KTNV.

In California, legislation signed into law by Gov. Brown last September allows for the “recall,” “dismissal” or “sealing” of past cannabis convictions if the quantities in question would no longer violate the law under the Adult Use Marijuana Act, passed by California voters in Proposition 64 of 2016. Under California code, “recall” essentially vacates a sentence, “dismissal” expunges the crime from the record, and “sealing” keeps the conviction in place but makes it invisible to the public. Under the new law, judges will have discretion which remedy to use.

The legalization measure that was defeated by a vote of 60 to 40 percent in North Dakota in November would have mandated a process to expunge the criminal records of “individuals with convictions for a controlled substance that has been legalized.”

Impatience in Canada

This is also now a question in Canada, of course. In the lead-up to legalization taking effect there in October, voices were raised for a “cannabis amnesty,” wiping out past convictions. But the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked the proverbial can down the road, saying such a measure would have to wait until after the federal government’s legalization framework was in place.

A measure introduced by the left-opposition New Democratic Party to instate an immediate amnesty last year failed when Trudeau’s Liberals voted against it.

With action still stalled three months into legalization, some are starting to accuse Trudeau and his Liberal Party of hypocrisy on the matter. And in Canada, as in the United States, the wide racial disparity in cannabis arrests especially makes this a question of social justice.

Writes Toronto Star columnist Tiffany Gooch in a commentary this week: “It isn’t enough to simply adopt language conveying concern for racialized communities who are negatively and disproportionately impacted by prohibition. With 500,000 Canadians holding criminal records for cannabis possession, our government had a responsibility to act… It’s time we stop penalizing our citizens for simple possession of a now nationally legal substance and get a simplified expungement process underway.”

Until politicians take definitive action, though, people with cannabis convictions will wait in limbo even as legalization hums forward.

TELL US, how do you think we should treat past cannabis convictions in the post-prohibition era?

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