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The Argument

Should the state expunge past marijuana convictions from criminal records?

YES

Valerio Romano

Scituate resident, an attorney who represents established and prospective marijuana businesses

Valerio Romano
Valerio Romanohandout

A person’s criminal history should reflect society’s belief about his or her conduct. Massachusetts voters are consistent about marijuana. In 2008, possession of under an ounce was decriminalized. In 2012, medical use was authorized. Last year voters ended prohibition in favor of a well-regulated marketplace.

The effects of a criminal record are serious: denial of employment, financial aid, loans, licenses, college admission, gun ownership, custody of children, insurance, entry into the country, volunteer positions, and the ability to participate in the marijuana industry. Absent some aggravating factor — for example, if the individual were also charged with a violent crime or child endangerment — Massachusetts citizens do not believe marijuana offenses should carry such dire consequences. It is time our laws reflect our beliefs.

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At least two bills have been presented to expunge marijuana records. One, filed by state Senator Jason M. Lewis of Winchester, allows for expungement for possession of up to one ounce — which is already decriminalized — while maintaining broad judicial discretion to deny expungement. Under existing law, first-time offenders for possession may already have their cases dismissed and records sealed. So I believe this legislation would have minimal impact and not address the recent voter-approved law legalizing recreational marijuana.

The other bill, filed by state Senator Patricia Jehlen of Somerville has more substance. It requires expungements without a petition. It limits judicial discretion. It provides for release of individuals serving sentences solely for marijuana violations that have now been legalized.

The argument that offenders should not receive a retroactive benefit because their acts were illegal at the time is based on principle, but has little relationship to the realities of our antiquated and racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws. The argument that expungement petitions would be a waste of resources disregards the real-life harm of such criminal histories.

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The true waste of resources is paying to incarcerate non-violent marijuana offenders. Senator Jehlen’s is the better legislation, but neither go far enough. A retroactive dismissal of convictions in addition to sealing the records would be better. Nonetheless, expunging records for now-legalized marijuana offenses would go a long way to addressing historical inequity, while removing the myriad of serious impacts of a criminal history.

NO

John F. Carmichael Jr.

Walpole police chief; served on Governor Deval Patrick’s Opiate Drug Task Force

Walpole Police Chief John F. Carmichael, Jr.
Walpole Police Chief John F. Carmichael, Jr.handout

Massachusetts should not automatically expunge past marijuana convictions.

One of the main arguments for marijuana decriminalization, as well as allowing medical and recreational use of the drug, was that marijuana laws were punitive and destroyed lives by arresting and placing people in jail for simple possession. Likewise, the argument was that marijuana laws prevented people from getting into college or obtaining housing due to marijuana records being generated.

In reality, it was rare for anyone to be sent to jail for “simple possession” of marijuana in and of itself, or for anyone to fail to get into college or obtain housing because they were caught smoking pot. Marijuana arrests were ordinarily secondary to another crime. For example, an individual might have been arrested for shoplifting or having a revoked license and because an incidental search uncovered it, they were also charged with possession of marijuana.

For people who have spent any time in jail for possession alone, it was typically due to violations of probation, because they had a history of past offenses, or because it was a plea deal to the lesser offense of possession when in fact they were distributing drugs.

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In fact, prior to the 2008 decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, any person convicted as a first-time offender for the possession of marijuana who was not previously convicted was automatically placed on probation. Upon successful completion of probation, the case was automatically dismissed and the record sealed. Judges also routinely did this for cases which resulted in findings of dismissed or not guilty.

Massachusetts already has a process for individuals seeking to have drug possession offenses expunged on a case-by-case basis, with well-established and judicious guidelines. It would be inappropriate and irresponsible to automatically expunge all marijuana records without considering the facts of each case and each individual’s criminal history.

The fact that marijuana has now been legalized in Massachusetts should not negate past violations of our laws which were in place at the time an offender was charged and convicted. A person’s criminal history is just that, and records should not ever be expunged with such a broad brush.

Last week’s Argument: Should Pembroke raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products in the town to 21?

Yes: 50 percent (23 votes)

No: 50 percent (23 votes)


As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at laidler@globe.com.