Many cannabis advocates are calling for the expungement of former marijuana crimes to go hand in hand with cannabis legalization. Although it differs from state to state, expunging your record of a marijuana charge can mean it is sealed or completely wiped all together in regards to marijuana becoming legal. Pro-marijuana advocates and many justice reform proponents feel that expunging records are the necessary second step to full legalization.

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What Is Expungement?

Rodney Holcombe, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Stash that when talking about expungement, it’s important to understand what it actually means. “There is no overarching definition for expungement,” Holcombe said. “It varies for each state, not only in what can be expunged, but the crimes that can be expunged can also be different. In some states, a person’s charge can be completely wiped or it may just be sealed from the public. Those both have long term effects.” It’s those long term effects that Holcombe and many justice and marijuana reform advocates say are the primary reason behind expunging previous marijuana records.

San Francisco, California, USA - May 19, 2015: SFPD officers interrogating black american men in San Francisco. Overall, Black Americans are arrested at 2.6 times the per-capita rate of all other Americans. iStock / chameleonseye

Collateral Consequences

Holcombe pointed to something called “collateral consequences” that follow a convicted person throughout their life. Those consequences vary depending on the charge, but according to The Heritage Foundation, manifest in convicted felons not being able to vote, difficulty getting a job or certification, problems with housing and many more. There are over 46,000 collateral consequences that a person can face at the federal or state level after they are convicted of a crime, leading to problems nearly 70 percent of the time for these people trying to get jobs. Justice reform advocates say that these problems increase the recidivism of former criminals and encourage a life of crime when they have no options left. “These extra problems for a person can extraordinarily make their life more difficult in the long term,” Holcombe said. “It’s such a long process that many people don’t know about and don’t have the resources to fix on their own.” Other advocates point to the fact that taxpayers are having to pay for the over 600,000 people being arrested every year for marijuana crimes and footing a nearly $44 billion dollar bill over more than 30 years. The Drug Policy Alliance also points out that $47 billion dollars are spent a year on the War on Drugs and that nearly 50 percent of those in jail for drug-related crimes are people of color.

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San Francisco As An Example

The view on street from the hill in San-Francisco. iStock / ibsky
One of the solutions being used in real life is an algorithm to automatically expunge the records. In San Francisco, The Stash reported that an algorithm was used to help identify 9000 marijuana cases that were eligible to be removed. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón stated that expunging the records was the “morally right thing to do” and pointed to the large number of people of color in jail for marijuana crimes compared to white people. 

NPR reported that the  2010 and 2011 numbers for African-Americans only represented 6 percent of the city's population, but comprised about half of its marijuana-related arrests. In response to numbers like those, Gascón said San Francisco was "taking the lead to undo the damage that this country's disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular." Gascón also pointed out that the process of getting those records removed by hand was “tedious” and that the artificial intelligence used ensures a streamlined system.

“You have to hire an attorney. You have to petition the court. You have to come for a hearing," Gascón said. "It's a very expensive and very cumbersome process. And the reality is that the majority of the people that were punished and were the ones that suffered in this war on marijuana, war on drugs nationally, were people that can ill afford to pay an attorney." Non-profit Code For America are currently using their technology to help find the records and plan on helping locate and expunge over a quarter million convictions through the end of the year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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Opposition to Expungement

Still, there are detractors to the system being used to remove the records. “To simply embark on an across-the-board Expungement of 9,300 without looking at any of the surrounding factors on any of those cases strikes us as cavalier irresponsibility,” said John Lovell, legislative counsel to the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, told the Times.

Many against the removal of charges are also against legalization to begin with. However, the conversation is changing, whether people like it or not. “It’s no longer a conversation of if but when,” Holcombe told The Stash. “The conversation has shifted and now people see that being punished for something that is legal is wrong in any setting… This is simply about letting people right their wrongs and not let their lives get derailed.” Going forward, the conversation around expungement will probably continue to grow.

Looking To 2020

In New Jersey, politicians have promised to expunge those records while legalizing marijuana in the next year or so, although after the last vote derailment, that's not a guaranteed timeline. Meanwhile, in Michigan, lawmakers are currently figuring out the details of how legalization will play into their state along with expungement. Lawmakers in Maine, Washington, and Oregon have also brought up expungement in recent months. But as 2020 approaches, the pro-pot candidates are also throwing out suggestions for the future of marijuana in America.

Most 2020 candidates for cannabis, to begin with, are for expunging past records, with Democratic Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey introducing the Marijuana Justice Act to help expedite the process. The Washington Post also reported that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Ca.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also threw their support behind the bill. Other candidates like Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Indiana Mayor Pete Buttegieg have called for reform when it comes to marijuana laws and records. However, like many other marijuana issues, it seems that the answers will be needed sooner rather than later.