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As marijuana legalization has created millionaire cannabiz entrepreneurs and very relieved patients who rely on pot, it's also freed some prisoners convicted of weed crimes and cleared the records of others charged with past crimes for doing what would be legal today.
But, as legalization efforts have varied from state to state, so have the efforts to clear cannabis convictions. And while some jurisdictions have been aggressive about expunging the marijuana-related records, others have been equally lethargic.
So, what can prisoners do?
Time Will Tell
California counties have been especially proactive in clearing cannabis convictions. After district attorneys noticed that applicants for expungement were few and far between following legalization in 2016, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin counties are using a computer algorithm to identify over 60,000 old pot convictions that are eligible to be cleared under new weed laws. "Frankly, very few people took the legal action required to clear their records," L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said, so the counties employed Code for America to do some heavy lifting. The non-profit thinks there are it can find and clear 250,000 convictions by the end of this year.
At the same time, 67-year-old Michael Thompson is serving 40 to 60 years in a Michigan prison for selling three pounds of marijuana in 1994. Michigan legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, but efforts to address past convictions have lagged behind other states'. Instead, Thompson is pinning his hopes on a pardon from new Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. "The new Michigan governor campaigned to fix Michigan roads, Michigan water and fix a comprehensive prison reform," Thomson wrote from prison. "Well, only God knows her true heart. Time will speak without talking."
Race to Clear Records
There is also a racial component to the discrepancy between commended cannabis entrepreneurs and condemned pot criminals. While current rates of illicit drug use are roughly the same along racial lines and white people are nearly five times more likely to use marijuana than black people, black men are 13 times more likely to go to jail on drug charges than their black counterparts.
And you might think that all this legalization would lead to fewer pot arrests, but that may also depend on race. The Colorado Health Department reported that marijuana arrest rates for Latino and black youths rose more than 20 and 50 percent, respectively, from 2012 to 2014, while the rate for white youths dropped nearly 10 percent over the same period.
As states struggle with decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, they will also struggle with the disparate impacts on black and brown citizens, especially those that have been charged with and convicted of crimes for behavior that would now be legal. If you have a past pot conviction or guilty plea, talk to a local lawyer about your legal options for sealing or expunging your criminal record.