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Report: More Than 2 Million Pot-Related Expungements Since 2018

Over the last half-decade, millions of Americans have seen their marijuana-related convictions expunged by state courts, according to a new report from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The findings highlight a byproduct of the legalization of recreational cannabis for adults, as states that have ended prohibition have also included a path toward pardons and expungements for those who have previously been busted for marijuana. Additionally, President Joe Biden issued pardons in 2022 to individuals with low-level federal marijuana convictions.

NORML’s report, based on publicly available information, revealed that “state and local courts have taken action on an estimated 2.3 million marijuana-related cases” since 2018. According to the report, the states “that have been most active in providing relief to those with past convictions include California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia –– all states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adults. 

NORML said that it “estimates that state and local police have made more than 29 million marijuana-related arrests since 1965,” and that among those who were arrested, “some 90 percent were charged with low-level cannabis possession offenses.”

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a statement on the report. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”

NORML’s report details a number of examples of state governors and local officials issuing pardons for low-level pot convictions, including in Illinois, where Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued 11,017 pardons to those with low-level marijuana convictions in 2019.

In the report, NORML also breaks down the differences between pardons and expungements.

“While pardons provide a level of forgiveness for past crimes, these are not the same as expungements – which seal past convictions from public view. To facilitate the latter, lawmakers in many states in recent years have enacted laws providing explicit pathways to expunge the records of those with low-level marijuana convictions. In some cases, those eligible for expungement relief are not required to take any action. Instead, state officials automatically review past records and notify those who meet the state’s criteria for expungement. In other cases, state law requires those seeking to have their records expunged to petition the courts in order to have their records reviewed and vacated,” the report said. “Predictably, states that have automated the review and expungement process have seen a massive uptick in the processing of marijuana-related expungements.”

Despite all the sweeping reforms at the state and local level, cannabis remains prohibited under federal law. But Biden’s actions were significant, affecting around 6,500 United States citizens.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana.  Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities.  And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said in 2022 after issuing the pardons. 

In addition to the pardons, Biden also urged “all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses.”  

“Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” the president said, adding that he had asked “the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

“Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances.  This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic,” he said.

A year later, President Biden issued a second pardon proclamation that “will pardon additional offenses of simple possession and use of marijuana under federal and D.C. law.” 

“Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana.  It’s time that we right these wrongs,” Biden said in 2023. “Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either. That’s why I continue to urge Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses and applaud those who have since taken action.”

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