State government officials have provided nearly 2 million pardons and expungements to people with low-level marijuana convictions over recent years, according to a new analysis from NORML.
There’s been renewed national interest in cannabis clemency since President Joe Biden issued a mass marijuana pardon in October, forgiving several thousands Americans who’ve committed federal possession offenses and encouraging governors to follow the administration’s lead.
But while the presidential action has been viewed by advocates as a welcome step in the right direction, it’s severely limited in scope, due in large part to the fact that vast majority of marijuana cases take place at the state level, falling outside of the president’s jurisdiction.
Some governors have taken clemency action in the weeks since Biden’s mass pardon, but many other state and local officials had moved to provide similar relief even before the president stepped up.
A new report published by NORML on Wednesday examines publicly available data from across the country, showing how officials have provided about 100,000 pardons and 1.7 million expungements since 2018.
“Hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”
Here’s are key examples of cannabis clemency that state and local officials have facilitated over the past four years:
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) has made a consistent effort to right the wrongs of criminalization. In 2020, for example, he pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession. That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.
In 2019, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced that people with misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions on their records were eligible to receive an expedited pardon. He estimated that 3,500 Washington residents would qualify for the relief.
One day before legal recreational marijuana sales launched in Illinois in 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced that his office was pardoning more than 11,000 people who had previously been convicted of simple cannabis possession.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) facilitated pardons for 8,000 residents with marijuana records in 2020, and he followed up later that year by introducing an ordinance to end all penalties for marijuana possession under the municipality’s local laws.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) announced last year that he granted 1,351 pardons for convictions of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana. Previously, he signed an executive order granting nearly 3,000 pardons for people convicted of possession one ounce of less of cannabis.
Birmingham, Alabama Mayor Randall Woodfin (D) said at a congressional hearing last month that he’s processed about 23,000 pardons for residents with cannabis records.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) launched the statewide pardon initiative in October, touting it as an opportunity to let citizens have minor cannabis possession convictions cleared from their records. And while officials touted the fact that it received about 3,500 clemency applications, it was recently reported that only a couple hundred have been conditionally approved.
The governor of Oregon recently granted a mass pardon for state-level marijuana possession offenses that will provide relief to an estimated 45,000 people—a move that she described as “truly an act of mercy” and that received praise from Biden.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) has granted hundreds of pardons during his tenure, primarily for people convicted of non-violent marijuana or other drug offenses.
“While pardons provide a level of forgiveness for past crimes, these are not the same as expungements—which seal past convictions from public view,” the NORML report says. “To facilitate the latter, lawmakers in many states in recent years have enacted laws providing explicit pathways to expunge the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions.”
“In some cases, those eligible for expungement relief are not required to take any action,” it continued. “Instead, state officials automatically review past records and notify those who meet the state’s criteria for expungement. In other cases, state law requires those seeking to have their records expunged to petition the courts in order to have their records reviewed and vacated.”
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Expungements and Record Sealing
Under California’s legalization law, more than 200,000 marijuana-related convictions have been expunged. And legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed in September to build upon the relief provisions of the cannabis law is expect to facilitate about 34,000 more expungements.
The governor of Illinois has touted that more than 500,000 expungements and pardons had been processed for people with low-level marijuana offenses on their records in late 2020. He also signed a bill in June to make it so courts cannot deny petitions to expunge or seal records based on a positive drug test for marijuana.
The New Jersey Judiciary announced last year that the state had expunged more than 362,000 marijuana cases, when a decriminalization law took effect that mandated the relief for people who have been caught up in prohibition enforcement.
More than 150,000 marijuana possession convictions in New York were automatically expunged in 2019, and that number has grown to 200,000 as of 2021, NORML said. Officials continue to process relief as the state prepares to launch its adult-use cannabis program.
Virginia has sealed more than 64,000 cannabis records since the state moved to legalize marijuana, the state announced in 2021.
The Arizona Supreme Court announced last year that it had launched a website to help people expunge their past marijuana conviction records, pursuant to the legalization initiative that voters approved.
“In total, two dozen states—including most recently, Maryland and Missouri—have enacted legislation expediting and facilitating the expungement of marijuana-related criminal convictions,” NORML said.
This cannabis clemency report is being released days after NORML released a legislative analysis detailing marijuana reform victories in state legislatures and at the ballot in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.