Lawmakers weigh plans to wipe away pot arrests | News

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BOSTON — The state’s voters legalized marijuana more than four years ago, but people are still being haunted by previous convictions for possession of the drug.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow those records to be wiped away by requiring the state Division of Probation to “immediately” expunge previous pot convictions for individuals who request it.

The proposal, filed by Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, would also require the state to notify individuals eligible to have those records expunged.

The bill, which is pending before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is one of several proposals seeking to allow people with previous pot convictions to permanently erase those charges now that cannabis has been legalized.

Advocates say those with pot charges on their records from pre-legalization days still face restricted access to jobs, housing and education.

“It’s inherently unfair to maintain a criminal record when the underlying offense is no longer a crime,” said Pauline Quirion, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services who is arguing an expungement case before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. “These records really hold people back from getting on with their lives.”

Unlike sealing a criminal record, which can still be viewed by law enforcement, expungement permanently erases charges from a person’s criminal record.

A 2008 ballot question made possessing an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine. Four years later, voters approved its medical use.

Then, in 2016, nearly 54% of voters at the ballot box approved legalized recreational marijuana.

Marijuana advocates say voters have made clear over the years that possession of small amounts should not be illegal, and people with old convictions should get a second chance.

“We’re talking about people who were convicted of crimes that society has deemed shouldn’t have been a crime,” said Jim Borghesani, a cannabis industry consultant who worked on the 2016 ballot question.

Other states where recreational marijuana is legal have taken similar steps to seal or expunge criminal records en masse.

Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an expungement bill in 2019 that allowed an estimated 150,000 people to have previous convictions sealed. In 2020, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis automatically pardoned 2,700 low-level marijuana convictions for possession of one ounce or less, some dating back decades.

But clearing criminal records of past pot convictions, even in places where pot is legal, remains controversial.

In Massachusetts, law enforcement officials and even some lawmakers have pushed back on efforts to retroactively wipe away previous convictions.

Several expungement proposals filed by lawmakers in the current session have either been relegated to study or rejected by legislative committees.

A 2018 law allowed Massachusetts residents with previous convictions for offenses that are no longer illegal — including marijuana possession — to have those records expunged from their records. But advocates say since then few people have benefited from the changes.

In some cases, judges refuse to sign off on expungement of previous marijuana possession convictions, even if the individual’s records have already been sealed.

Under state law, expungement requests must be deemed to be “in the interest of justice” but the interpretation of what that might be is generally left up to judges.

Quirion said a proposal filed by Rep. Chynah Tyler, D-Roxbury, would remove that discretion and require judges to approve expungement requests for convictions like marijuana possession if the applicant meets the criteria under the law.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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