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Pennsylvania Marijuana Pardon Initiative Disappoints As Thousands Of Applicants Are Rejected

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Pennsylvania’s marijuana pardon project has fallen far short of expectations, with officials tentatively considering just 231 of more than 3,500 clemency applications it received over a one-month period.

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) launched the statewide pardon initiative in October, touting it as an opportunity to let citizens have minor cannabis possession convictions cleared from their records.

But while the administration and Board of Pardons (BOP) touted the significant number of applications it received through the project, it seems that something went amiss, as PennLive first reported on Thursday.

There were signs of potential issues in late October, when the board initially voted to hold the roughly 3,500 applications they got under advisement until partnering state agencies could carry out a review to ensure that all eligible applicants were properly considered.

That review resulted in a much smaller pool of eligible pardon applicants than officials would have hoped. And even the 231 people who made it through the last review round must still be formally approved by the board later this month.

An additional 2,002 applications were denied by BOP “because they did not meet the requirements of the project,” PennLIve reported. The board voted to hold another 434 applications under advisement, a status that allows them to be reconsidered at a future meeting.

It’s not clear why the majority of applicants were rejected, but it’s possible that there were technical problems with their submissions or that people who applied had multiple, uncovered convictions on their records, for example.

“The Pennsylvania Marijuana Pardon Project was a first of its kind project with a goal to pardon a large amount of people with select minor, non-violent marijuana criminal convictions since the governor cannot unilaterally issue pardons and the General Assembly has yet to act to legalize adult-use marijuana,” Emily Demsey, a deputy press secretary for the governor, told PennLive. “It is the hope of Governor Wolf that the next administration will continue working to improve this process and give people with these offenses their rightful clean slates, until marijuana becomes legal in Pennsylvania.”

Marijuana Moment reached out to BOP for additional comment, but a representative was not available by the time of publication.

BOP Secretary Celeste Trusty had previously told Marijuana Moment that the board identified “quite a few folks who entered incorrect data” on their applications, which may have been due to accidentally entering the wrong docket number for their cannabis case or other minor errors on the online form.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who was elected to the U.S. Senate last month and currently serves as chair of the state BOP, told Marijuana Moment in October that while the pardons would meaningfully benefit thousands of Pennsylvanians, “the only lasting relief will come when our Republican legislature finally decides to do the right thing and legalize it.”

The lieutenant governor previously said that he wants to process cannabis clemency for as many people as possible before leaving office.

While pardons represent full forgiveness for the conviction, the governor’s office has stressed that eligible people will still need to separately petition the courts to have their records formally expunged.

Trusty, Fetterman and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) separately talked about marijuana reform and the pardon program during the 5th annual Cannabis Opportunities Conference in Pennsylvania in September.

Fetterman said that “Pennsylvania is a place for a second chances” and the initiative would “help people get pardons quickly for stupid weed convictions” while the legislature stalls on legalization.

The Pennsylvania pardon project launched just before President Joe Biden issued a proclamation granting a mass marijuana pardon for those who’ve committed federal possession offenses.

Biden used the opportunity to encourage governors across the U.S. to grant cannabis clemency to people with state-level convictions, and some like Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) have followed suit.

In contrast to Pennsylvania, where just over 200 pardon applications are proceeding, there are more than 45,000 people in Oregon who are expected to receive relief under their governor’s recent action, which has been celebrated by Biden.

Back in Pennsylvania, state Democratic lawmakers have won enough seats to take control of the House after last month’s election—a development that could have major implications for marijuana reform in the state, where Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (D) backs legalization.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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