marijuana gavel justice reform

States Move to Clear Records of People With Previous Pot Convictions

By Michael Hartman | July 16, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Despite a nationwide trend toward legalizing marijuana in some form or another, there remain many people with criminal records for possession of cannabis. More than 7 million people were arrested for possessing pot between 2001 and 2010, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and most received a criminal conviction.

Recreational marijuana was first legalized in 2012, through ballot measures in Colorado and Washington. The movement has since spread to 11 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands. As legalization has increased, so too has legislation to clear the records of those convicted previously of minor cannabis offenses.

Colorado lawmakers passed legislation that “requires courts, upon petition, to seal the records of misdemeanor marijuana possession or use offenses that would not have been crimes if committed” after the law went into effect in December 2012. Anyone convicted or charged with underage possession or consumption of marijuana may apply for sealing.

Other states have passed laws to expunge or erase previous minor pot convictions, some automatically. Most recently, Illinois lawmakers passed the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act that, alongside legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, authorized the record clearing of “minor cannabis offenses.” California, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota and Oregon also have record-clearing laws specifically addressing cannabis offenses.

Most states and territories, however, have broad record-clearing laws that may apply to prior cannabis convictions.

Several states also are addressing the “collateral consequences” a cannabis conviction can bring, such as restrictions on professional licensing and exclusion from government benefits. Vermont lawmakers passed the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act to shield certain individuals with cannabis convictions from some restrictions. For example, those granted orders of limited relief under the law cannot be denied an application by a licensing agency or housing authority based solely on their criminal records.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania have introduced but not yet enacted similar uniform acts during this year’s legislative sessions.

Read more and find an interactive map on our Clearing Criminal Records for Cannabis Offenses webpage

Michael Hartman is a research analyst in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.

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