How Does Expunging Marijuana Arrests Work?

As legalization sweeps across the country, one of the key provisions in many states has been the ability to expunge marijuana arrests for past convictions, typically those involving simple possession of small amounts. Because the war on drugs impacted people of color disproportionately, expungement is seen as an act of social justice.

The problem lies in the fact that many people may not know they have this service available to expunge marijuana arrests in their state. Wiping out past criminal records related to marijuana is typically part of the decriminalization of weed. That means it is available even in states that have not yet made weed legal.

President Joe Biden has already announced a pardon of all federal charges of simple marijuana possession, a relatively small number of people. He also urged all governors to do the same in their states.

“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said in a statement.

Expunging Marijuana Arrests Differs By State

People in the United States live in a patchwork quilt of laws regarding cannabis, with 23 states currently allowing recreational cannabis use and 39 allowing medical cannabis. But 27 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana, and 41 states have a law on the books that may apply to expunging criminal records. Seven of those states directly address expunging marijuana arrests.

The process of eliminating penalties for what is now legal in so much of the country is a slow process. Much like legalization itself, expunging past criminal records will take time. But anyone with a past marijuana possession conviction must take the lead on the issue. Few if any local or state governments are reaching out to those with past convictions. It’s imperative that each individual research the state laws on expunging records.

The National Council of State Legislatures maintains a database on state laws that provides a good place to start.

A Critical Part of Changing Cannabis Laws

While allowing people to possess and use small amounts of cannabis is a step forward for the present, marijuana laws from the past still harm the lives of many people. Several told PBS that past arrests have made their lives difficult. It’s telling that they did not want to use their full name out of fear of further damaging their job prospects.

One suffers from kidney disease and follows the recommendation of a nurse who told him that cannabis could help control some of the symptoms of the disease, including nausea and vomiting. But when a relative mailed him marijuana from a legal state to his home in Virginia, law enforcement traced the package, and he was charged with a felony.

Although he then worked as an administrator for a government contractor, he said the conviction ensured he would never again get promoted or grow in the job. He left the job after getting hospitalized with kidney-related problems, and now worries he’ll have a hard time getting any kind of job with a felony conviction.

It’s not always arrest records that impact people’s lives. Another man said that when he was 18, a drug sweep by Boston police turned up marijuana in his room and resulted in him and his grandmother getting kicked out of their home. Even though he did not get convicted, the police action left him without a stable home.

Another pointed out that legalization alone isn’t helping those with past convictions. He said that politicians “are making strides toward being really liberal and legalizing [weed], and that’s cool, but at the same time I served 10 years for this. So, at some point, I feel like I deserve some reparations.”

But just as states did not legalize recreational marijuana overnight, the lingering effects of the war on drugs are not likely to quickly disappear.

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