Marijuana legalization has been a hot topic in the U.S. for decades, but it has gained more momentum in recent years as more states have enacted laws to decriminalize, regulate, or legalize cannabis for medical or recreational purposes. However, millions of people who have been convicted of low-level marijuana offenses still face the stigma and legal consequences of having a criminal record that can affect their employment, housing, education, and other opportunities.
Fortunately, some states have taken steps to expunge or pardon these records, providing relief and justice to those who have been unfairly punished for cannabis use. According to a new report by NORML, a leading advocacy group for marijuana reform, state government officials have provided nearly 2 million pardons and expungements to people with low-level marijuana convictions over recent years. Here are some key examples of how states have done so:
A pardon is an official act of forgiveness that erases or reduces the penalties of a conviction. Unlike an expungement, which seals the record from public view, a pardon does not remove the conviction from the official record. However, it can restore some rights and privileges that were lost due to the conviction.
Some states have enacted laws that allow people with certain marijuana convictions to apply for a pardon from the governor or other executive authority. For example:
- In 2020, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession. That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.
- In 2019, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced that people with misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions on their records were eligible to receive an expedited pardon. He estimated that 3,500 Washington residents would qualify for the relief.
- One day before legal recreational marijuana sales launched in Illinois in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced that his office was pardoning more than 11,000 people who had previously been convicted of simple cannabis possession.
An expungement is a legal process that seals or destroys the records of certain convictions from public view. This means that employers cannot ask about criminal history on job applications or background checks; landlords cannot deny housing based on criminal history; schools cannot use criminal history as a factor in admissions decisions; and other entities cannot access or disclose criminal records without consent.
Some states have enacted laws that allow people with certain marijuana convictions to apply for an expungement from the court system or other agencies. For example:
- In 2020, Missouri officials announced that courts had expunged over 100,000 marijuana-related cases, including over 10,000 felonies. In total, two-dozen states have enacted explicit legislation expediting and facilitating the expungement of marijuana-related criminal convictions.
- In 2019, Colorado became the first state to automatically expunge all nonviolent marijuana convictions since 1975. The law applies to anyone who was convicted of possessing up to one ounce of marijuana between January 1st and December 31st of any year since then.
- In 2018, California passed Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use and allowed people with certain convictions to petition for their records to be sealed or expunged.
Expunging or pardoning low-level marijuana records can bring many benefits to individuals and society as a whole. Some of these benefits include:
- Reducing recidivism: Expunging or pardoning records can help former offenders reintegrate into society without facing barriers or discrimination due to their past convictions.
- Improving public health: Expunging or pardoning records can help former offenders access treatment services if they need them; avoid stigma and shame associated with having a criminal record; and reduce health disparities caused by criminalization.
- Promoting social justice: Expunging or pardoning records can help former offenders restore their civil rights and dignity; recognize their contributions and potential; and support their families and communities.
Marijuana legalization is not only about personal choice; it is also about social change. By expunging millions of low-level marijuana records since 2018, states have shown their commitment to fairness and compassion towards those who have been harmed by prohibition laws. As NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release: “Hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans… no longer consider to be a crime.”It is time for more states to follow suit and provide relief and justice for those who deserve it.