Should the state expunge past marijuana convictions from criminal records?
State Representative, Cambridge Democrat whose district includes parts of Somerville and Cambridge
Last November, 54 percent of Massachusetts voters approved Question 4, legalizing marijuana and establishing a regulatory framework for its sale in the state.
The public voted for legalization despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials and political leaders. Support for marijuana shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, as Massachusetts residents voted for decriminalization in 2008 and medical use in 2012.
The state Legislature is contemplating changes to the law. I am skeptical of proposals that might narrow the scope of a voter-approved law. But one area where further action is needed is the expungement of criminal records for prior marijuana-related offenses.
Retroactive expungement would have been a natural component of last year’s ballot question and was actually included in legislation filed by state Senator Patricia Jehlen of Somerville and Dave Rogers of Cambridge that served as a blueprint for Question 4.
But under the state constitution, an initiative petition cannot undo judicial action. Senator Jehlen has now filed a bill that would allow for expedited expungement of marijuana-related offenses repealed by last year’s ballot question.
I am a proud cosponsor of the bill because I do not believe any valid purpose is served when we continue penalizing and stigmatizing individuals whose actions voters have now deemed acceptable.
Marijuana convictions often lead to devastating consequences, even after any prison time is served. According to the Supreme Judicial Court, low-level drug offenders may be subject to deportation, disqualification for employment and professional licensure, loss of access to public housing and government benefits, probation fees, and stiffer sentencing for subsequent offenses.
While acts related to the recreational use of marijuana may have been against the law at the time they were committed, public support for Question 4 wipes away the stigma of criminality and renders moot utilitarian notions of deterrence or incapacitation. Practically speaking, anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime has likely already paid a debt to society.
Finally, people of color continue to be arrested at higher rates for marijuana offenses than white people, even though white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates. The Legislature should consider expungement not just as criminal justice reform, but also as part of a racial justice platform.
For the sake of justice and the future of our Commonwealth, the Legislature should move to adopt expungement legislation this session.
James A. DiGianvittorio
Middleton Police Chief, president of Massachusetts Chiefs of Police
Last November, Massachusetts voters passed Question 4, the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act. Some are now advocating that with the adoption of this law, we should basically expunge all past infractions. I think this would be the wrong way to go.
In my 32 years of law enforcement, I have not seen many if any individuals sent to jail for simple possession of marijuana. Anytime someone was sent to jail there were always contributing factors to the case, such as probation issues, or second or subsequent offenses related to the same type of activity. The state even became lenient on first-time offenders who were charged with simple possession when it pertains to our strict gun laws.
When it comes to these types of issues, I respectfully seek the guidance from the professionals who are the foremost authorities on the subject. We are fortunate to have Chief John Carmichael of the Walpole Police Department, who sits on the Governors Opiate Task Force, and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Substance Abuse Committee.
Chief Carmichael has advised me that prior to the 2008 ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Massachusetts, any person convicted as a first-time offender who was not previously convicted was automatically placed on probation. Upon successful completion of probation, the case was automatically dismissed and the record sealed.
In Massachusetts, there is already a process in which individuals on a case-by-case basis can seek to have previous drug possession offenses expunged from their records. This avenue, which has well-established guidelines, provides more than adequate recourse for those who want to clear their records in light of the new law. To instead automatically expunge all marijuana records without considering the circumstances of each case and the person’s past criminal history would be unwarranted and irresponsible.