If you’ve never been busted for cannabis possession, consider yourself lucky. Lots of people have, especially people of color. One of the harshest, lingering effects of America’s war on ‘drugs’ is the huge number who have been arrested and imprisoned for things now legal in many states today, especially marijuana.
Today someone in 11 states can light up a perfectly, locally legal joint, but if they pass it someone standing across the border that person can be arrested. If your skin is Black or Brown, you’re five times more likely to be stopped in your car, arrested or convicted of a low-level marijuana infraction than if you’re white. Even if you aren’t convicted or imprisoned, the offense alone follows millions around. They’re denied jobs, refused business licenses, cut off from bank loans and even struggle renting housing. It’s a serious impediment for those trying to get on with their lives.
While many presume cannabis arrests are down since more than half the states and the nation’s capital legalized one form or another of marijuana,that hasn’t been the case. More than 660,000 people were arrested for cannabis offenses in 2018.
A major component in today’s cannabis legalization efforts is to offer aid and respite to those whose lives have been impacted, especially communities of color. Expunging records is a big part in healing those blighted communities, because it completely eliminates a past criminal record.
“The main difficulty is to understand the process to even start this kind of thing,” says Melanie Rose Rodgers, one of the organizers of National Expungement Week, which starts Saturday and runs through Sept. 26. “Where do you go? People don’t have the real information they need. Some don’t know what happened to their records. It’s a convoluted process, and not very user friendly. And you have to hire a lawyer on top of it. If you’re low-income, black and brown, it’s really hard.”
There’s also the negative association with past criminal records, even if the charge was over something like cannabis which is now widely accepted.
“People feel ashamed,” says Lisa Gee of Lightshade. “We have this many-decades-long record of building this negative connotation about cannabis. There is a critical mass of interest around certain issues, and today people are talking about expungement.”
States have taken individual approaches with varied degrees of success. Massachusetts included the opportunity for minority owners to get first crack at cannabis business licenses in its 2017 legalization initiative, but the process has been slow to implement.
But Nevada’s Board of Pardons Commissioners approved a resolution to “unconditionally” pardon all convictions for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana prior to 2017. Illinois is looking into a way for the state to auto-expunge all cannabis arrest records. In Pennsylvania, where cannabis is still illegal except for medical use, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons established a cannabis pardon program last year.
In Colorado, both the cities of Boulder and Denver held record expungement clinics earlier this year with lawyers on hand to offer legal advice. Neither attracted many people. Earlier this year the state passed legislation to allow the governor to expunge the records of entire classes of people, rather than just individuals.
Last year’s national expungement week featured more than 40 events in 30 cities. 652 people wound up beginning the process of clearing or sealing their records. This year even more events are planned, and more cities are now involved, with virtual and in-person clinics and legal advice for anyone who needs it.
With increased emphasis and awareness of social justice issues among Americans in the wake of the wake of recent murders of unarmed Black people by police, organizers are hopeful that will translate into even more action this year.
If you need help, or know someone who does, information about National Expungement Week activities are here. .
“Today everybody’s waking up,” Rodgers says. “This is the time.”