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U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Calls On People To ‘Proactively’ Reach Out About Marijuana Expungements As Government Faces Criticism Over Equity Rollout



The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) is asking people with prior marijuana convictions to “proactively” reach out and see if they’re eligible for expungements under the territory’s cannabis legalization law that was enacted early this year.

As the government faces criticism over a lack of progress on legalization implementation in general and automatically expunging past convictions specifically, as mandated under the bill Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) signed in January, his office has published a notice inviting individuals to “come forward” for potential relief if they’ve been criminalized over up to two ounces of cannabis.

The notice says the initiative reflects the governor’s “commitment to justice and fairness in applying the law, especially in light of recent changes that have made the expungement process more complex than initially intended.”

It’s not clear what changes are affecting the process, but The Virgin Islands Daily News reported that the territory’s Office of Cannabis Regulations was due to release a report on the status of its automatic expungements efforts by the end of last week, and it appears that didn’t happen on time. Also, it’s uncertain whether Bryan has independently exercised pardon authority since the legalization bill was enacted.

There’s been broader criticism of the legalization rollout, with licensing for the industry stalled due to a lack of a fully formed regulatory body. But advocates who championed the reform are especially frustrated that equity components of the law have seen such delay.

“I think it’s a travesty that the equity piece hasn’t even been addressed,” former Sen. Janelle Sarauw (D), the chief sponsor of the legalization bill, said. “That was the intent of having the companion legislation to ensure that those who have been disenfranchised or locked up for cannabis can have a fair shot at life. And it’s just, it’s appalling that nothing has been done.”

The governor’s office appears to be aware of the criticism. It recognized that the law is meant to provide for an automated process to expunge prior records, but the governor is now urging people with eligible records to get in touch on their own in order “to ensure full compliance and address any potential gaps in data received from the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands.”

“This initiative aligns with the intent of Act No. 8679 and represents a significant step toward rectifying past inequities in the criminal justice system,” the notice says. “The Governor’s Office encourages all eligible individuals to come forward and take advantage of this opportunity for a fresh start.”

The governor’s special advisor, Positive Nelson, is leading a task force on expungement with representatives from the office of the Virgin Islands Attorney General, the Office of the Territorial Public Defender, Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands Bar Association and the Virgin Islands Justice Institute.

People wishing to request expungement for their cannabis-related infractions can contact Nelson at [email protected].

Bryan, who has described marijuana as a safer alternative to opioids and previously released his own legalization proposal, also signed a medical cannabis legalization bill into law in 2019.

He also emphasized the need to legalize, tax and regulate cannabis to generate revenue amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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