Will Oregon Do the Right Thing for People With Marijuana Convictions?

March 2, 2021

An important political initiative aims to right some of the wrongs of the War on Drugs in Oregon. Though the state fully legalized marijuana back in 2014—it went on to vote to decriminalize all drug possession in November 2020—it has failed to provide nearly 30,000 impacted residents with a straightforward way to remove their criminal records from past marijuana convictions.

Now, the Cannabis Equity Act of Oregon seeks to create a pathway to free, automatic record expungement. It was introduced in the state House of Representatives on February 3. “This Act focuses on widespread reinvestment in the communities that have been hurt most by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs,” read a public announcement from the Cannabis Equity PAC supporting the bill. “Passage of the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act would focus cannabis tax dollars and other relevant funds into repairing damages done to Black and brown communities.”

Besides the expungement provision, the bill would also create a statewide “cannabis equity” program to help Black, Indigenous and Latinx residents, as well as formerly incarcerated people, to form legal cannabis businesses. This is similar in spirit to statewide programs launched in states like Massachusetts and Illinois.

The initiative is intended to address the persistent racism and classism that marijuana legalization alone has done too little to mitigate.

The bill also includes “community reinvestment” provisions to direct cannabis tax revenues into communities of color and other disadvantaged communities. The revenues would help fund Black and Brown-owned businesses, and to invest in programs for home and land ownership and job training for these communities. Revenues would also go towards reducing inequities in health and education opportunities.

Where did this initiative spring from? Beginning in 2020, a coalition of Oregon residents including former state lawmakers, cannabis businesses, advocates and law students, came together to lobby for the Equity Act. The initiative is intended to address the persistent racism and classism that marijuana legalization alone has done too little to mitigate.

To rewind further: Governor Kate Brown in 2015 signed into law a bill to allow for expungement of pre-July 2013 marijuana convictions, if the charge would no longer stand under current law. The legislature then expanded on that bill in June 2019, with Senate Bill 420, which further simplified the process.

Bill 420 allowed anyone with a marijuana possession conviction for up to one ounce to file to have their record expunged. The person with the conviction would have to file a petition to the court where they were convicted, though Bill 420 eliminated any fees they would be charged in the process. The court would have 30 days to object to their petition.

However, the coalition now pushing the Cannabis Equity Act acknowledges that Bill 420 has been a failure.

“Less than 200 out of 28,000 Oregonians eligible for expungement were able to successfully complete the process in the past two years,” said State Representative Ricki Ruiz, a sponsor of the bill. “We need to do better. This bill provides us the path and the funding we need to efficiently remove previous cannabis crimes from people’s records and provide them the opportunity to repair their lives from the harm caused by cannabis criminalization.”

Under the current proposed bill, record expungement for marijuana offenses would be free and automatic—the burden is on the courts, not on the person with the record. This is very helpful because often, people eligible for expungement are not even aware of this right. If they are aware, then completing the process—finding the right court, finding their record and filling out the application—can still be difficult and time-consuming.

The Equity Aill would also use cannabis tax revenues to fund automatic expungement, presumably through computer software, as has been used by some county governments in California and Illinois. And it would forgive fines and fees for people with outstanding marijuana judgements—something that would certainly benefit people with lower incomes.

 

Post-Legalization, Stark Injustices Persist

Oregon legalized marijuana by popular vote in November 2014, but marijuana-related injustices have continued to be pervasive in the years since.

According to the ACLU, before legalization in 2010, Black residents were nearly twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana. In 2014, marijuana arrests made up the vast majority—roughly 80 percent—of all drug arrests in the state.

By 2018—the latest year the ACLU analyzed—marijuana arrests post-legalization (larger-scale possession and unregulated sales remained illegal) had fallen dramatically, and represented only about 30 percent of all drug arrests. But despite this progress, the proportion of marijuana arrests involving Black residents actually rose slightly from 2010 to 2018.

Racial disparities got even worse in certain counties. In Clackamas County, a suburb of the state’s largest city of Portland, the marijuana arrest rate for Black people in 2018 was nearly eight times higher than for whites.

Clearly, very little has changed in the attitudes and priorities of law enforcement around cannabis consumers in stigmatized and segregated communities.

As Filter has reported, similar racial disparities have persisted in California, where cannabis tax revenues have helped fund increased policing, and Black and Brown arrest rates have in some cities increased after legalization. The increased arrests in Los Angeles, for example, are partly a result of a lack of legal cannabis stores in many communities, as well as police trying to arrest people for “selling” marijuana, using possession of weighing scales or baggies as “evidence.”

Steps that should have been taken long ago would nonetheless be welcome now.

It’s important to note that the Cannabis Equity Act of Oregon would not directly tackle these problems—by, for example, defunding marijuana enforcement. But it would try to ensure that anyone arrested and convicted for a marijuana charge no longer considered illegal could get that wiped from their record.

This would be a huge step forward for many residents. As Filter has reported, marijuana criminal records—even in states with fully legal weed—have stopped people from getting jobs, home loans, or even public benefits like food stamps. And that’s to say nothing of the psychological toll of going through life being labeled a “criminal.”

But while 14 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories have legalized marijuana for adult use, not all have taken action to recognize that people who were arrested and convicted for what’s now legal deserve to have their records removed.

California set a better example than most: The state legislature and Governor passed a law in September 2018 requiring that all county courts throughout the state review 50 years of marijuana convictions and file petitions to clear eligible records, free of charge to the people.

But county district attorneys still have too much power in the process, and some have tried to block or delay this process for as long as possible. In Santa Clara County, a recalcitrant prosecutor waited until April 2020—over 18 months later—before finally taking action to clear over 11,500 cannabis records.

All too often, people with marijuana convictions are last on the list to benefit from legalization. Oregon has an opportunity to begin to reverse some of the injustices that have persisted since legalization in 2014. Steps that should have been taken long ago would nonetheless be welcome now.

 


 

Photo by tigerlily713 from Pixabay

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander's journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and "Ban the Box" campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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