At 24 years old, Jason Tendean was slapped with a felony after he was caught with possession of marijuana for sale. He was busted in Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles, and served 36 days in jail before his public defender was able to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor. Even so, Tendean, now 30, says the smear on his record has been a hindrance to opportunities over the past six years. "It's held me back from getting several jobs and grants, it made things harder obviously, [and] you know this weed charge allows cops to harass me," he says. "They use it to search me and any time I get into it with them, they use it as an excuse to get away with [stuff]."
At first, Tendean tried to get his record cleared, but the time and financial expense seemed daunting. To the layman, the legal system is tricky and complicated — things like "expungements" sound like an intimidating foray into legalese and a system that's for the most part worked against victims of the Drug War.
"Last I didn't know I was eligible," Tendean said this week, upon learning about his opportunity under California's cannabis legalization law to reduce his misdemeanor to an infraction or erase it altogether. "I don't know too much about the new law, the whole thing about the laws is that they're real confusing."
This week is National Expungement Week — the first of what will be an annual effort among more than 20 cannabis equity and reparative justice organizations to host free record changing clinics across the country. Events are happening this week in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Haven, Philadelphia, Prince George's County, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.. Those who attend the clinics will also be provided with employment resources, voter engagement, health screenings, and more.
"Now that the plant is becoming legal, those who have gone to jail should be able to clear their record," says Sonia Erika of Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council and a spokesperson for Equity First Alliance. "Considering America's history of the War on Drugs, the cannabis industry must bring justice and shared profits. As these expungement events become more common, we wanted to coordinate them to highlight the need for widespread and automated legal relief."
About 77 million Americans have convictions on their records, while in 2017 alone, nearly 600,000 people who were charged with cannabis violations were arrested for possession only. These blemishes can restrict access to housing, employment, education, public assistance, and voting rights for years after the sentences have been served. Yet, from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the process of record clearing is wildly different.
California is considered to have among the most progressive cannabis legalization policies in the country, namely because the law provides that felonies can be reduced to misdemeanors and misdemeanors may even be erased altogether. But, unless you live in a place like San Francisco, where the district attorney has agreed to automatically process people's cannabis-related records, others have had to take it upon themselves to petition the court where they were convicted. Some have worked with lawyers to do this, others have attended free clinics, and still others, like Tendean, didn't know they had the option to do it at all.
And while the California legislature recently passed AB 1793, which would require DOJ officials to identify all cannabis convictions between 1975 and 2016 and notify the relevant prosecutors by next July (at which point the prosecutors can decide if hey want to challenge the cases, or let them be reduced or expunged), people will otherwise need to wait until 2020 for their records to be processed automatically.
"That's two years from now, and I don't know, could you wait two years to get a job or find housing or get back to your education?" asks Adam Vine, co-founder of Cage-Free Cannabis, an organization that helps the cannabis industry repair the harms of the Drug War. "Having a low-level cannabis conviction from years ago could drive people into underground economies and result in further convictions for them."
Under Prop 64 to legalize adult use cannabis in California, 220,000 people are eligible for relief, yet only a little over 6,000 people have petitioned to have their records cleaned up. "Counties are not required to report those numbers, so realistically, it may be a little higher, but way fewer people have applied for relief than we would have hoped for in two years [since Prop 64 passed]," says Rodney Holcombe, with the office of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Outside California, some people with cannabis convictions, living in legal states, may not be able to clear them at all. Last year, Colorado passed a law that would allow those convicted of cannabis misdemeanors for marijuana use or possession to ak to seal, but not erase, their criminal records. Oregon, Maryland, and New Hampshire have similar laws, as well. And Massachusetts, like California, allows marijuana misdemeanors to be expunged, as well, while marijuana felonies can be expunged if they occurred more than seven years before the petition for expungement is filed.
Nonetheless, even with these laws, legal clinics such as those that take place during Expungement Week and throughout the year are still necessary. "We have to continue hosting legal clinics so that all people of some conviction types have a chance to reclaim their lives, to rid themselves of the collateral consequences that make it difficult for them to lead successful lives after they've committed the offense," says Holcombe. "We've gotten to the point where public support of cannabis legalization is at its highest yet. When we think about legalizing, we need to think about repairing the harms of the Drug War. We got to think about helping low-income folks, folks of color, and those who have had their lives ruined as a result of the failed War on Drugs so we can make right of these wrongs."