Though eleven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana, the process of expunging prior cannabis convictions remains complicated and expensive, with methods to clear records varying widely between jurisdictions.
People with marijuana records may struggle to pay outstanding fines or locate documents from different courthouses—if they are even aware at all that they are eligible for expungement.
But against all these barriers, the movement to expunge cannabis records is growing rapidly. That’s the takeaway from a new report on the impact of National Expungement Week (NEW), which launched in 2018 and is now an annual occurrence. NEW offers expungement and post-conviction relief services, as well as other social and support services, at various events hosted throughout the country.
In 2019, NEW helped 652 people start the record clearing process, more than double the 298 people it assisted in 2018. The number of people who received other services like voter registration, job support and health screenings increased by more than 750 percent, to 3,069 people.
Seven hundred and fifty people cleared or reduced their court fines and fees associated with the expungement process. Last year’s event also more than doubled the amount of expungement clinics and events hosted, from 18 events in 15 cities in 2018 to 44 events in over 30 cities in 2019.
A popular video promo by comedy actor Seth Rogen may have also helped new audiences discover NEW. Rogen’s cannabis company Houseplant also sponsored the expungement assistance push, as did Canopy Growth Corporation and Caliva. Rock the Vote and Equity First Alliance were also involved.
“While we are encouraged by the growth of National Expungement Week, it only demonstrates the need for deeper reforms of the record clearing process at the state and federal levels,” Torie Marshall, director of Cage-Free Repair, one of the nonprofits that helps to organizes NEW, said in a press release. “We will continue to fight for those reforms while providing direct services to justice-impacted communities.”
Organizers estimate that the 2019 effort generated a public benefit of $7,143,964, in the form of increased wages, reduced public spending and other benefits over the next two years.
The report describes some of the barriers and challenges facing people who want to expunge their records. Only four-to-six percent of people eligible for expungement or post-conviction relief actually apply for it, the document reports. People with records may have difficulty simply locating their criminal records from courts and offices, or they may struggle to afford an attorney to help them. There’s also the possibility that distrust in the criminal justice system due to prior experiences with arrests or incarceration may be a factor.
“We believe in the necessity of both automation and clinics,” the report states. “Technology offers a chance to provide cost-effective legal relief at scale, and events provide opportunities to connect in-person and deliver wraparound services in a coordinated fashion. With 77 million people in the US in possession of a criminal record, we need multi-faceted solutions to address the challenges of these complex problems.”
Notably in 2019, NEW also partnered with the tech non-profit Code for America (CFA), which hosted the National Day of Civic Hacking on September 21, the first day of NEW 2019. The civic hacking day alone featured 46 events throughout the U.S. focused on the criminal justice system and record clearing.
CFA has been working with county governments to automate the process of cannabis record expungement. In February 2019, San Francisco County used CFA’s special Clear My Record software to expunge 8,100 cannabis convictions. Then, in April, Los Angeles and San Joaquin Counties announced they were partnering with CFA to clear as many as 54,000 convictions. Finally, in September, CFA made their software available for any prosecutor in California to use.
More state and local governments are signing onto not just marijuana legalization, but record expungement as well. Last year, the top prosecutor in Baltimore announced that her office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases and would expunge nearly a decade’s worth of marijuana cases. And on December 31, the day before Illinois opened its first adult-use cannabis shops, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) cleared the marijuana possession records of 11,000 people.
The next National Expungement Week will be held September 19-26.
New York Legal Marijuana Push ‘Effectively Over’ For 2020, Governor Says
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) conceded on Saturday that it’s unlikely marijuana will be legalized in the state this year.
“Marijuana and the gig economy were two of the more complicated initiatives that we wanted to work through that we didn’t get a chance to do,” he said in response to a question about which policy issues he would’ve liked to tackle in the annual budget bill that passed this week.
“Is the session effectively over? It’s up to the legislature, but I think it’s fair to say it’s effectively over,” he added, noting that several state lawmakers have been infected with coronavirus.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Congresswoman Wants Ban On DC Marijuana Sales Lifted Through Coronavirus Legislation
A congresswoman is calling on the government to end a policy prohibiting Washington, D.C. from legal marijuana sales, arguing that the jurisdiction is in particular need of tax revenue from cannabis commerce due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has repeatedly condemned the congressional rider barring the District of Columbia from allowing retail sales that has been extended each year since 2014, shortly after local voters approved a ballot measure to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation. But given the need for resources to combat the pandemic, she said a reversal of the provision should be included in the next COVID-related relief bill.
“At this moment of unparalleled need, D.C. should be able to collect tax revenue from all available sources, like every other jurisdiction, including from recreational marijuana, which is believed to be widely used in the District,” the congresswoman said in a press release on Friday, adding that D.C. was shorted in the last stimulus because Congress treated it as a territory rather than a state.
“While I am working for a retroactive fix in the next coronavirus bill, it is imperative that Congress also repeal the D.C. recreational marijuana commercialization rider in the next bill to help D.C. shore up its finances,” she said. “It is beyond unreasonable that congressional interference keeps only the District from commercializing recreational marijuana, while all other jurisdictions are free to do so.”
— Eleanor Holmes Norton (@EleanorNorton) April 3, 2020
“Bringing the District in line with other jurisdictions would create a critical source of tax revenue in our time of need.”
Last year, the House approved an appropriations bill that excluded the D.C. rider, but it was included in the Senate version and ultimately made its way into the final package that the president signed. The cannabis commerce ban was also included in President Trump’s budget proposal earlier this year.
“True to form, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton continues to be one of the best allies to the cannabis reform movement,” Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “During this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, it is critical that lawmakers analyze and reform any and every aspect of public policy to mitigate the health crisis and build a foundation for a strong recovery.”
“As the majority of states that regulate cannabis have deemed the industry essential to the continued functioning of their jurisdictions, the continued congressional prohibition of the District of Columbia enacting it’s own adult-use program becomes even more ridiculous,” he added.
Norton, in an interview about her push, said that the congressionally mandated prohibition on sales doesn’t prevent people from accessing cannabis but does block the city from collecting tax revenue.
“You can buy two ounces but, by the way you’ve got to do that on the black market,” she told WUSA-TV. “But there’s nobody to tax it. And I’m simply trying to get the taxes the District is due for merchandise, in this case marijuana that’s being consumed readily in the District of Columbia.”
🟢🟢 LEGALIZING COMMERCIAL MARIJUANA IN D.C. 🟢🟢
I spoke to D.C.'s Delegate @EleanorNorton
She's pushing for fully legal commercial marijuana sales in the District in a 4th Congressional stimulus package.
The District needs the money.
And people are smoking weed anyway. pic.twitter.com/PL9yoDKlrj
— Adam Longo (@adamlongoTV) April 3, 2020
Legislative priorities for Congress have shifted significantly as lawmakers attempt to address the outbreak, and that’s meant putting some reform efforts on hold. However, the issue isn’t being ignored entirely, and it’s possible that other members may look to attach modest marijuana proposals to additional coronavirus legislation.
For example, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) said this week that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs policy preventing its doctors from recommending medical cannabis in legal states puts service members at risk in Massachusetts because the state is shuttering recreational shops (but not medical dispensaries) and some veterans fear registering as patients out of concern that they could lose federal benefits.
Eleven senators wrote a letter to Appropriations Committee leadership asking that they allow small cannabis businesses to access federal loans and disaster relief programs. While the lawmakers said it should be enacted through an annual spending bill, advocates have argued that the policy change should be pursued through coronavirus legislation since these businesses are facing challenges just like those experienced by many other companies during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
North Dakota Activists Say Marijuana Legalization Initiative Unlikely In 2020 Due To Coronavirus
North Dakota activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign put marijuana legalization on the November ballot due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In a Facebook post, Legalize ND said “we are going to have to face a few hard realities going forward” as businesses are shuttering, public events are being cancelled and individuals are encouraged to shelter in place. The pandemic means in-person signature gathering can’t take place, and the state does not allow for alternative signing options such as by mail or online.
“Due to the virus all of our major avenues for signature collection have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed, and going door to door is not safe for both those knocking and those getting knocked,” the group said. “Businesses will continue to collect, but we don’t want to create another vector for the coronavirus. As a result, at this time if something major doesn’t change we will not be able to make the 2020 ballot.”
Legalize ND said there’s no way for state policies related to signature gathering to be changed ahead of the November election. They needed to collect 13,452 valid signatures from voters before July 6 in order to qualify. In all likelihood, the campaign said it would have to shift its focus to the July 2022 primary election.
“This isn’t the solution we want, but given the situation it is what will have to happen,” the post states. “Stay safe, and hopefully we can make a major push when the quarantine ends.”
The proposed initiative would allow individuals to purchase and possess up to two ounces of cannabis. Unlike a much more far-reaching measure the same group pushed in 2018 that included no possession or cultivation limits, which voters rejected, this version would prohibit home growing, impose a 10 percent excise tax and establish a regulatory body to approve licenses for marijuana businesses.
North Dakota voters approved a medical cannabis initiative in 2016.
The coronavirus outbreak has dealt several blows to drug policy reform efforts in recent weeks.
Likewise in Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics asked the mayor and local lawmakers to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently conceded that legalization was “not likely” going to happen through the budget, as he hoped. Coronavirus shifted legislative priorities, and comprehensive cannabis reform seems to have proved too complicated an issue in the short-term.
Idaho activists announced on Thursday that they are suspending their campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”
Finally, in Arizona, a legalization campaign is petitioning the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow individuals to sign ballot petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is reserved for individual individual candidates seeking public office.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.