Attorney, Newton resident; served on the drafting committee for the 2016 ballot question that legalized marijuana in Massachusetts
Massachusetts in 2016 became one of the first two states east of the Mississippi to legalize adult-use cannabis, a distinction for which we should be proud. Legalization has helped displace the illicit market and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues for the state and thousands of new jobs.
But when it comes to expunging prior criminal convictions for cannabis offenses — in other words, wiping the slate clean for residents convicted of offenses that are no longer crimes — the Bay State is trailing the pack.
As a former public defender, I’ve seen how cannabis convictions can hinder employment, jeopardize housing opportunities, thwart adoption desires, and block volunteer eligibility in schools, sports teams, or civic boards. Convictions are especially problematic for people seeking financial stability in this COVID-recovering economy.
Our current expungement policy in Massachusetts — a cumbersome and expensive process involving petitioning, court appearances, and adjudication — needs to change. We can look to two of our border states for inspiration. Just this year, Vermont and New York both adopted measures that automatically expunge misdemeanor criminal records relating to cannabis convictions. These new policies eliminate the need to pursue lengthy, costly processes to erase what wouldn’t even be considered crimes today.
Massachusetts should go even further than these states by mandating that automatic expungement cover all misdemeanor and felony cannabis convictions prior to 2016 with the exception of sales to minors. This would parallel the approach taken by the state Cannabis Control Commission in assessing the conviction history of cannabis license applicants.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, in announcing some 500,000 expungements for cannabis offenses earlier this year, put the argument for reversing cannabis convictions quite well. Referencing the historic disproportionate impact of drug arrests upon communities of color, he said that government “will never be able to fully remedy the depth of the damage. But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past.”
Massachusetts should be leading, not trailing, other states in adopting cannabis expungement policies. Automatic expungement for cannabis convictions, both misdemeanors and felonies, would be a fitting next step for one of the first eastern states to end cannabis prohibition and its massive injustices.
William G. Brooks III
Norwood police chief; past president, Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association; board member, International Association of Chiefs of Police
I am not opposed to expunging past convictions for possession of marijuana from people’s criminal records, but we need to draw the line at simple possession and not stray into the area of dealing.
I have never thought that completely legalizing marijuana was a good idea — and I still don’t — but that’s now the law in our state and for that reason alone, people’s past convictions for a crime that no longer exists should not follow them. But there may not be as many of these cases as people expect. Dating back to 1975, anyone convicted of a first offense of marijuana possession in Massachusetts was placed on probation, and upon successful completion of that probation their case was dismissed and their record of the offense sealed. The law provided that a court could file a written memorandum explaining why that was not done, but I never saw that happen.
In reality, most cases of marijuana possession never got that far; cases were routinely continued without a finding or outright dismissed, often upon payment of nominal court costs. In my experience, those who ended up with a guilty verdict on their record had often been arrested for multiple charges and had marijuana on them, and the marijuana count was pled out as part of a broader plea. Someone arrested in a housebreak who had weed on him might receive a guilty finding for that charge when he pled guilty to the other charges, for instance.
In my view, drug dealing and trafficking are a different story. Those acts are still considered criminal and should remain on a defendant’s record. In Massachusetts, dealing marijuana is actually a misdemeanor unless the dealer sells 50 pounds or more, which would trigger a trafficking charge. Believe it or not, selling 20 pounds of weed to an undercover police officer is a misdemeanor here.
Although a guilty finding for marijuana possession is unlikely to be a stumbling block for most people these days, it is just and fair to remove it from a person’s record. But convictions for drug sales of any class should remain on their criminal history record.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tis is not a scientific survey. Please only vote once.