Four states, including Arizona and New Jersey, legalized marijuana on Nov. 3. This brings up the question: will marijuana-related criminal records be expunged?
Although illegal under federal law in the United States, 15 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, with 33 states allowing it for medical use. Justice for those who have been affected by marijuana laws prior to legalization is a major concern.
In some states, like California and New York, the expungement process is performed automatically by local jurisdictions. In other states, those with past convictions are required to actively petition their officials for an expungement.
In Arizona, which was the only state that still treated marijuana possession as a felony crime, newly passed Proposition 207 allows for those convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes to petition for their record to be expunged.
According to Smart and Safe Arizona, Prop. 207 provides those who were previously convicted of low-level marijuana charges to have a second chance at life and allows police to focus on “real crime and hard drugs.” Still, access to legal representation presents an issue when expungement is not automatic.
New Jersey, on the other hand, already had a law in place to help residents rid themselves of marijuana-related offenses on their record. In Dec. 2019, New Jersey passed a law facilitating the automatic expungement of low-level marijuana crimes.
Other states that automatically perform the expungement process are Illinois and Vermont. Illinois was the first state to add expungement language in a statute legalizing recreational use of cannabis.
Starting Oct. 6 of this year, Cook County in Chicago, IL, vacated the criminal records of over 1,000 minor marijuana offenders. They “do not have to take any action to initiate the expungement process,” according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Instead, they simply receive a notice when their record has been expunged. Unique to Cook County, the automatic process goes a step further and results in a judge vacating the conviction and destroying the court file.
Still, there are people in parts of the country incarcerated due to marijuana-related offenses with millions affected by having the offense on their record.
According to the Uniform Crime Report from the FBI, more people were arrested for cannabis in 2019 than for all violent crimes put together. 92% of the arrests were for simple possession of the drug.