As CT Erases Cannabis Convictions, Will People Fall Through the Cracks?

    On January 1, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D) announced on Twitter that his administration “has marked 42,964 cannabis convictions erased.” This move was scheduled: According to the cannabis legalization bill he signed in June 2021, the state must ensure a process to erase all marijuana convictions for things that are no longer a crime. On January 9, Lamont updated his figure to “43,754 low-level cannabis convictions” erased.

    Fulfilling this promise will benefit thousands of people who will no longer be discriminated against in areas like employment, education and housing. But no one knows exactly what the final figure will be—and how the process happens depends, in part, on when the conviction occurred.

    That’s because historically, Connecticut has made changes to how it counts marijuana charges. In January 2000, the state moved from keeping paper records to an electronic system. And from October 2015, state law changed to count certain marijuana charges simply as possession charges, without specifying the drug.

    “The number they came out with, 44,000, is a very large number and it’s very unclear how they came up with it.”

    The state had legalized medical marijuana in 2012. And in 2021, full legalization through the legislature saw adults over 21 permitted to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis. The first legal adult-use sales, through existing medical marijuana dispensaries, began on January 10.

    This history makes it pretty confusing to figure out, now, who has a marijuana conviction and who is eligible to have it expunged.

    “The number they came out with, 44,000, is a very large number and it’s very unclear how they came up with it,” Jason Ortiz, the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Filter. Ortiz has worked on lobbying for cannabis reform in his home state of Connecticut.

    For the years between 2000-2015, if you were convicted for possession of under 4 ounces of cannabis, your record should be automatically erased—the state will do the work to identify and erase it, without you doing anything.

    But if your conviction happened before 2000—or between 2015 and 2021—this will not happen automatically. Instead, it’s down to you to file a petition with the court where your charge happened. You must provide a copy of your arrest record or an affidavit stating that you were convicted on an eligible charge. The court must then approve it before erasing your record. This process will cost you time and effort, although you will not be charged a fee. And for many people, it will present a significant barrier.

    “Your arrest record or the court docket ostensibly would say something about marijuana,” Sarah Gersten, executive director of Last Prisoner Project, told Filter. However, “there could absolutely be people that for some reason it didn’t appear there, or they just don’t have it. They no longer have access to these documents, it’s not easy to get those.”

    “We know that when the onus is on the individual to petition the state … not very many people will actually utilize that.”

    This process applies, too, if you have an eligible non-possession conviction from any year. If you were convicted at any time for possessing marijuana “paraphernalia,” or for selling, distributing or manufacturing up to 4 ounces, you qualify for erasure, but will have to file a petition to get it done.

    Exceptions to all of this are compounding convictions that aren’t eligible to be erased. For example, if you were charged with marijuana plus a firearms or other illegal drug charge, or with marijuana charges that include some things that remain illegal, you can’t fully erase your record. Eligible marijuana portions, however, can be erased from an electronic record.

    It’s the unknown number of people who have “possession” convictions that don’t specifically list marijuana that advocates are concerned may slip through the cracks, missing out on having their records erased.

    “We’ve been doing a lot of digging as to how exactly did they identify the cannabis cases to be expunged,” Ortiz said, “when previously we were told they didn’t separate them from the all-drugs cases, they’re all controlled substances violations.”

    “We know that when the onus is on the individual to petition the state, even when there’s a presumption it should be erased and there’s no discretion, not very many people will actually utilize that,” Gersten said.

    “[You must have] an education campaign that makes people aware this law exists, puts it into easy plain language how you can apply and what you need.”

    In the absence of automation, the path to successfully expunging a criminal record is all about having the right information, and making sure people know it.

    “[You must have] an education campaign that makes people aware this law exists, puts it into easy plain language how you can apply and what you need, that doesn’t require someone to go out and spend money on hiring an attorney and accessing their records,” Gersten said. “That’s hugely important and something that Connecticut has the resources [to do].”

    One step the state has taken is to launch, on January 9, a “Clean Slate and Cannabis Erasure” website. It’s designed to allow people to check if their records from between 2000 and 2015 have been automatically erased, and to inform them of how to file a petition with a court if necessary.

    The state’s Clean Slate Law, signed by the governor in 2021, will expand erasure beyond cannabis. It will automatically erase convictions for most misdemeanors and lower-level felonies, if the person has completed their sentence and not had any other criminal convictions for seven to 10 years (depending what they were convicted of). Lamont’s administration has stated that this law will fully take effect by July 2023, when a new computer system will be set up to handle criminal records.



    Photograph via Rawpixel/Public Domain

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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