How Do You Expunge a Marijuana Conviction? It Depends on Where You Live
There's a lot of confusion about decriminalization and records expungement.
As legalization sweeps across the country, one key provision in many state laws is the ability to expunge criminal records for past marijuana convictions. Because the War on Drugs impacted people of color disproportionately, most view expungement as an act of social justice.
But there's confusion on the issue. Many people don't know if expungement is available in their state. Expunging past criminal records related to marijuana is typically part of the decriminalization of weed, but it's also possible in states that have not yet made weed legal.
Expungement laws now depend on where you live
Decriminalization and records expungement may ultimately happen at the federal level, but right now, it's a local issue.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has written the first draft of a law that removes marijuana from the federal schedule of illegal drugs.
Schumer said at a news conference that his proposal is "long overdue," adding, "We have all seen the agony of a young person arrested with a small amount of marijuana in their pocket. And because of the historical over-criminalization of marijuana, they have a very severe criminal record they have to live with their whole lives."
If approved by Congress, Schumer's proposal would clear up the confusion many have about decriminalization and records expungement. It's an understandable state of affairs because people in the United States currently live under a patchwork quilt of laws regarding cannabis.
In mid-2021, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult-use marijuana. Almost every state now allows some level of medical marijuana use. But 27 states and the District of Columbia also 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.
That has dramatically expanded the ability for people to have past arrests expunged. But not all people are aware they have this right. The process of eliminating penalties for what is now legal in much of the country has been slow. Only a handful of areas have made expunging criminal records a focus of marijuana laws, such as in San Francisco, where the tech community is helping with the process.
The bottom line is that anyone with a past marijuana possession conviction must take the initiative. Few, if any, local or state governments are reaching out to those with past convictions. It's imperative that those with a criminal record related to cannabis research state and local laws and determine if they can get their conviction expunged.
The National Council of State Legislatures maintains a database on state laws that provides a good place to start.
People are still paying the price for the War on Drugs.
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 Virginia resident suffers from kidney disease. He decided to follow advice from a nurse who told him cannabis could ease some of his symptoms, including nausea and vomiting. But when a relative mailed him marijuana purchased in a legal state, law enforcement traced the package and charged him with a felony. That happened in 2015. Virginia made cannabis legal this year, but his problems remain. Once an administrator with a government contractor, he now fears he will not get hired 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. After police charged him with a felony, the landlord evicted him and his grandmother from their home. Even though he did not get convicted, the police action left him without a stable home for years.
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 ten years for this. So, at some point, I feel like I deserve some reparations."