After California, Pot Legalization Campaigns Focus on Expungement

After California, Pot Legalization Campaigns Focus on Expungement

For four years, Rob Jenkins scoured the Internet in vain to find employment. Any job would do. However, despite showing initial interest in hiring him, nobody would take the plunge after learning about his 2008 conviction for growing cannabis, albeit a misdemeanor. “I was stuck,” the 37-year-old college graduate recalled. “No job opportunities were coming in.”  

The Effect of Pot Legalization

Jenkins is not alone. Countless others across the United States faced similarly dire prospects for their futures, all because of a criminal record for cultivating or possessing now-legal marijuana. Now, the movement to reform pot laws, state by state, is providing them with a chance for expungement, especially those from Black and Latino neighborhoods previously targeted by law enforcement.

The goal is to expunge pot-related criminal records and help those affected put their previously illegal skills to good use in the exploding cannabis industry. It began when voters in California approved Proposition 64 in 2016. Not only did it legalize recreational pot, but it also allowed those with pot convictions to expunge their records.

Current Pot Legalization Campaigns

There is more, however. San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles are now giving previous “criminals,” especially those from once heavily targeted communities, priority for licenses to open cannabis businesses. This is spreading to other states campaigning to legalize. Michigan, North Dakota, and New Jersey are now all making economic and social justice the center of their campaigns.

This is a new direction entirely from the traditional rationale to legalize, which has always been changing public perceptions and the desire to tax a profitable commodity. According to New Jersey Governor, Phil Murphy, “In New Jersey, black residents are three times more likely than white residents to be arrested for marijuana offenses.”

If passed in November by New Jersey voters, the legalization bill, as Murphy explained, would “help break the cycle of nonviolent, low-level drug offenses that prevent people, especially people of color, from succeeding.” Data shows that, although whites, blacks, and Latinos all use and sell pot at similar rates, blacks are more likely to face charges because of it.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, although African Americans only constitute six percent of California’s population, a quarter of inmates serving marijuana-related sentences are African American. In Oakland, where blacks and whites are of equal number, 77 percent of those arrested for pot-related offenses in 2015 were black. Only four percent were white. The pattern repeats year after year.

Modeling California’s Pot Laws

The new law in California attempts to streamline the expungement process and make it popular for former convicts to wipe their records clean. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced in January his office’s intention to dismiss 3,000 pot misdemeanors from as far back as 1975, as well as seal records for those sentenced prior to the passage of Proposition 64.

The process also includes reviewing nearly 5,000 felony convictions for possible resentencing or dismissal, but it could take upwards of a year to finish. In Oakland, over 600 people have filed petitions for record expungement and had them granted. The office of Los Angeles County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, is not dismissing convictions. People seeking expungement are using the courts.

However, record expungement is but the first step in righting past wrongs. Social equity programs, like the one in Oakland, reserve at least half of all cannabis licenses for residents discriminated against by drug and sentencing laws after 1996, the year California legalized medical weed. Applicants must have no other criminal history, earn less than the city’s median income, or be resident in a targeted area for a decade or more.  

The program also pairs applicants with investors, called incubators, who share licenses and fund businesses for at least three years. Equity applicants won six of the eight permits Oakland granted this year. Nina Parks, activist and program coordinator, said, “The creation of these equity programs is the beginning of acknowledging the greater issue of the criminalization of brown and black people.”

In explanation, Parks clarified, “These policies are not reparations, but moves toward restoring justice.” Results will require time and publicity, as many remain unaware that equity programs exist, or even that they have an opportunity to expunge their records. However, despite good intentions, these efforts are not without some major controversy. Many argue that the law was the law. People still broke it.

Conclusion

With pot laws now changing, state by state, former convicts now have an opportunity to rid themselves of pot-related criminal records and open cannabis businesses. More and more, social equity and justice is becoming the focus of pot legalization campaigns, with the aim of uplifting previously targeted communities. Michigan, North Dakota, and New Jersey are following suite, as will everyone else.

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