Cannabis, also known as marijuana or marihuana, has been legalized for recreational use in 11 states, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Additionally, 16 states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. In 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, medical cannabis programs are available. Despite the recent trend of states and territories legalizing cannabis in some form or another, there remains a large population of individuals who have a criminal record for cannabis possession.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), over 7 million people were busted for having pot from 2001 to 2010. Considering recreational marijuana was first legalized in Colorado and Washington in 2012, these arrests translated into criminal convictions for the majority of individuals. Criminal convictions often carry collateral consequences, such as restrictions on professional licensing, government benefits and more. As legalization of cannabis progressed through the states, so too did the practice of clearing the criminal records of those affected by prior cannabis convictions.
Most recently, Illinois legalized marijuana with its “Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act”. The act, alongside legalizing recreational use of cannabis, provided for record clearing of “minor cannabis offenses.” However, Illinois is far from alone when it comes to clearing cannabis records. Forty-one states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands all have record-clearing laws that may apply to prior cannabis convictions. Seven states' record-clearing laws specifically address cannabis offenses, while the remaining states' and territories' record-clearing laws are broad enough to cover cannabis offenses. While there is a Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act (the "Uniform Act"), which may provide some collateral consequence relief to certain individuals with cannabis convictions, Vermont is the only state to enact it. New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Massachusetts have all introduced the Uniform Act during their 2020 legislative sessions. The Uniform Act, however, is not the only route for states that want to provide collateral consequence relief to individuals with prior cannabis convictions.