Grow, Gift, Repair

Expungement & Local Control in This Week in Weed


The principle is simple enough: when a criminal law is repealed, people who had been arrested or convicted under it ought to have their criminal records wiped clean (expunged), or at least sealed.

Otherwise, employers or landlords could use that record to deny work or housing, even though society has since decided those actions no longer merit punishment.

In Massachusetts, those convicted of marijuana crimes can get their records sealed, rendering them inaccessible except to authorities in specific situations.

But now, a criminal justice bill passed this week by the state Legislature would allow those records to be permanently obliterated. The legislation contains a provision allowing expungement of any past offenses that are no longer considered crimes. That applies to marijuana possession, though not dealing, since selling marijuana without a license is still a crime.

“The presence of a criminal record is a real barrier for people to access jobs and housing,” said state Senator William Brownsberger, one of the authors of the legislation. “I’m a fan of anything that makes it easier for people to get back up on their feet. If we want people to reenter society, we need to open the door for them to do that.”

The bill is now before Governor Charlie Baker. Few expect him to veto it, though it’s unclear whether he’ll sign it, ask lawmakers for changes, or allow it to become law without his signature.

Assuming it goes into effect more or less as-is, the bill would also allow people with past marijuana possession convictions to have corresponding records in a federal crime database sealed — good news for anyone applying to jobs in another state.

Brownsberger cautioned that expungement isn’t instantaneous. While prosecutors in other legal-marijuana states, including the district attorney for San Francisco, have moved to mass-expunge all past marijuana convictions, the Massachusetts law requires individuals to petition for expungement. The request will go through the probation department, the district attorney, and finally to a court, a process that could take up to two months.

Brownsberger said that individual review is important to ensure complex or troubling cases don’t inadvertently get wiped clean alongside the truly minor ones. In some instances, he added, it may actually be better to seal records rather than expunge them — if an employer or landlord learns about your past arrest through an old news story or other online record, you may want to be able to retrieve the case to prove it wasn’t a big deal.

Bottom line, though: “If a marijuana conviction has somehow hampered someone’s life in Massachusetts, this bill pretty much puts an end to that,” Brownsberger said.

Rahsaan D. Hall, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program in Massachsuetts, said it makes no sense to keep punishing people for minor marijuana crimes when government-regulated marijuana stores open in a few weeks.

“Particularly in light of the decriminalization and now legalization of marijuana, expungement is appropriate,” he said. “A sealed record still raises questions, whereas with expungement, there is no record.”

Hall said the ACLU would have preferred automatic expungement, noting that poorer people may find it too expensive or difficult to to navigate the petitioning process. The burden of helping those people, he said, would fall on legal advocacy groups. Still, it’s better than no expungements.

“Of course we would prefer a process that is less cumbersome, but we also recognize that this was a compromise bill,” Hall said. “It’s still a significant step forwards. Now it’s on the advocacy groups to make people aware of it and develop clinics and workshops to take advantage.”

What do you think? Should Massachusetts have set up an automatic expungement system? Is this a step in the right direction? Hit me .

Enough with the doom and gloom. Here’s at least a little bit of good news for the little guys. Stay with me here.

Dispensary operators and their lawyers often warn me that the so-called empowerment applicants have no idea what they’re in for at the municipal level. If you don’t have relationships with the local officials, they say, you will struggle to navigate the approval process.

In other words, if your dad isn’t golf buddies with the chair of the board of selectmen, or if you haven’t otherwise schmoozed with the municipal powers-that-be, you’re in trouble. Just look at Boston, where several different medical marijuana applicants in recent years hired former city councilor and friend-of-the-newsletter Mike Ross to represent them. That’s how it works. You need an inside guy.

Well, I’m happy to report that some of the more sophisticated operators in the marijuana space have found room in their hearts and busy schedules to take on economic empowerment and equity clients seeking marijuana licenses — for free.

And yes, that includes Ross, who told me this week that he’s actively working one such pro bono deal. Also in the gratis mix: Vicente Sederberg, the high-powered Colorado-based marijuana law firm that represents many operators in Massachusetts.

“We want to provide legal assistance to social equity clients,” said Vicente Sederberg attorney Adam Fine, who said his preference was someone with “a drug conviction who served time. I used to do federal prisoner reentry work and it was very fulfilling.”

Are these examples, on their own, enough to make a big difference, given that there are already more than 100 economic empowerment applicants in the state pipeline? Maybe not, but we should still applaud their efforts and encourage others to follow suit. Each economic empowerment and equity applicant that comes away with a license is a win for justice, after all.