The state of Missouri has cleared several thousand old marijuana records as it implements adult-use legalization, which voters approved in November 2022. Those people who once had a marijuana conviction on their record now have it erased; as far as employers and others who might ask are concerned, they have never been convicted. It’s a major step towards ending legal discrimination—in areas like employment, education and housing—against people targeted by the drug war.
As of February 21, courts had granted 6,121 expungements for misdemeanor records, and over 1,200 for felony records, according to the Riverfront Times. But just 60 out of 114 counties had filed any expungements, meaning there is still much to do. And they’re not all moving quickly: The largest jurisdiction in the state, St. Louis City, has expunged just two felony records. In comparison, Clay County, outside Kansas City, has expunged over 1,330 records.
Under the new law, possession of up to 3 ounces is legal for adult use. All eligible misdemeanors for people that completed their sentences must be expunged automatically by June 8, and low-level felonies by December 8. No filing fee will be charged. Courts will provide notice that a record has been expunged to the person affected, and to police and prosecutors’ offices. But if your charge involved selling to a minor, violence or driving under the influence, it won’t be eligible.
Anyone currently incarcerated for marijuana convictions including past misdemeanors and Class E and D felonies involving possession of under 3 pounds can ask the court to vacate their sentence, leading to their immediate release, and to expunge their record. Those who are on probation or parole will have their records automatically expunged. All past Class A, B, C or D felonies for possession over 3 pounds will be expunged automatically after the person completes their sentence and probation or parole.
“Hundreds of people across the state of Missouri now possess and distribute more marijuana than my client is accused of possessing.”
Some of the charges eligible to be expunged actually remain illegal under current law. But that’s because legalization now allows for possession of higher amounts of cannabis, if you have a business license.
This finer point that will sometimes need to be argued in court, however. In a case where a person is trying to expunge a conviction for possession above 3 ounces, “The prosecutors will say, ‘No that’s not true judge, you can only have up to 3 ounces,’” Dan Viet, an attorney who is the Missouri State Coordinator for NORML, told Filter. “And I say, ‘You can only have up to 3 ounces unless you have a license to be in the marijuana distribution business, in which case there’s no limit to the amount you can possess. I stand by my statement: What this man did is now legal. Hundreds of people across the state of Missouri now possess and distribute more marijuana than my client is accused of possessing.’”
While there are big advances being made early on in correcting some of the injustices of cannabis prohibition, there is still some discretion for courts to decide who does and doesn’t qualify for expungement. Attorneys like Viets can fight some cases, but there’s a risk that some people who can’t get a lawyer will slip through the cracks.
“I’m getting notices almost every day from counties across the state of Missouri saying this defendant’s case is now expunged, or this defendant’s case has been examined and is not eligible for expungement,” Viets said. “There may be some debate about that, some clients whose cases are not being expunged correctly but are in fact eligible. I expect to be going back to court on behalf of some of my clients.”
Some courts have said they are overworked trying to comply with expunging all old records, and need more funding to pay for staff and other expenses. But, as Viets explained, a portion of state tax revenue from legal cannabis sales is earmarked for counties, public defenders and the state Supreme Court. That’s expected to cover these costs, as marijuana tax money starts to flow into state coffers.
“Some courts think they won’t be able to get it done that quick [by June 8], but as long as they’re making a good faith effort, we probably won’t sue them over that,” Viets said.
“He was released last month and he’s now home after serving 14 years in prison.”
Missouri’s legalization model has been controversial—in part because of the licensing priority given to existing medical marijuana businesses, handing them a years-long head start over social equity applicants; but also because of concerns over the efficacy of the expungement provisions. Some major organizations that generally support legalization remained neutral on the November 2022 ballot question for these reasons. Yet some advocates are now pleasantly surprised by the pace of expungements. At the same time, they’re seeing inconsistencies in how the law is being applied and who benefits.
Christina Frommer, the cofounder of Canna Convict Project, shared the story of one Missouri client her organization worked with. He successfully petitioned to be released from his prison sentence for a Class C felony marijuana conviction. According to the new law, he would first need to complete his sentence and any probation or parole, before being able to petition for expungement. But it worked out better than that.
“One of the gentlemen we advocated for was the very first prisoner to petition the court for expungement and release and it was granted,” she said. “We were nervous and had a lot of supportive arguments ready to go, because according to the language he didn’t seem eligible because of the classification of his offense.”
“But the judge, I don’t know if he read the amendment or not, because he granted it. The prosecution had no objections. He was released last month and he’s now home after serving 14 years in prison, five for cannabis and the rest for an unrelated crime.”
“Hold their feet to the fire.”
The progress made thus far in Missouri is promising—especially compared to states like California, where some courts took many years after cannabis legalization to fulfill their obligation to expunge old records. But the process is still under way, and residents will need to make sure their courts follow through on every step.
“I tell everyone, if they have any questions about where their sentencing court is at in the process, to contact the court,” Frommer said. “They should be able to discuss where they’re at, who they’re looking at and working on next.”
“Get the expungement petition printed out and send it to your sentencing court, and just keep following up with them,” she emphasized. “Hold their feet to the fire.”
Photograph by James St. John via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0