Mar. 18—AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature is again contemplating a bill that would seal criminal conviction records on minor marijuana-related offenses that are no longer crimes following the state's legalization of adult-use cannabis in 2016.
"To state it simply, if there is no victim, there is no crime. It's just weed, bro," state Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee Thursday.
Fecteau, for the second time in two years, is the primary sponsor of the legislation, which was left unfinished in 2020 as the Legislature adjourned as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine.
Variations of the bill were before the Legislature in both 2019 and 2020.
Others testifying in support of the bill said those convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes should no longer be punished by having their prospects for employment hampered or suffering other consequences.
It is unclear how many people may be impacted by the proposed change, as the court system's records are not all managed in a single electronic database. Some convictions, before 2001, would have to be physical redacted in "leather-bound" docket books, according to Julie Finn, a spokeswoman for the state's court system. She testified neither for nor against the bill but detailed the technical challenges the law change could present.
Opponents to the measure, including representatives of the Maine Press Association, said the blanket sealing of conviction records from the public would be problematic, leading to a less transparent government and court system. Instead, opponents said, the conviction records should be handled — as they are in other states where marijuana possession and use was once illegal but is now legal — on a case-by-case basis.
Judy Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal, the Waterville Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal, said the state's press association was opposed to the bill because the sealing of criminal records, even records on things that were no longer crimes, was a clear violation of the public's right to know.
"MPA does recognize that we all deserve an opportunity to move on with our lives and recover from mistakes of our past and we understand that is what this proposed bill is about," Meyer said. "But a blanket seal on convictions or adjudications of a current or former crime or civil violation bumps up against the public's constitutional right to access court records."
She said that as marijuana legalization has become more widespread in the United States, about 20 states have found ways to provide relief for those with previous conviction records for offenses that are no longer crimes. Almost all of them do it on a case-by-case basis and at the request of the individual. In New England, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts all have those kinds of systems in place, Meyer said.
"These case-by-case evaluations represent an important balancing test in our judicial system, where requests for seal are evaluated in context with the age, actions and criminal history of each petitioner," Meyer said.
Groups supporting the bill include criminal justice reform advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.
Michael Kebede, policy council for the ACLU of Maine, urged the Legislature to support Fecteau's bill.
"In 2016, the people of Maine decided to make landmark progress on cannabis legalization," Kebede said. "Their decision to join the growing number of legal states has been profoundly transformative."
He said legalization recognized what was already happening in Maine, and by doing so voters created a new industry that has created jobs and tax revenue, while at the same time reducing the illicit use of marijuana by children.
"By sealing records related to conduct that is now legal, this bill would clear the cloud hanging over Mainers who got caught doing something that was common and widely condoned before we collectively decided to take a new approach," Kebede said.
Mark Barnett, an Auburn resident and executive director of the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, said the legalization of recreational, adult-use marijuana in 2016 was only the latest decision by voters to support legalizing marijuana use. He noted that voters approved medical marijuana in 1999.
"At various points, the Legislature and the people of Maine have voted in support and in favor of decriminalizing this conduct," said Barnett, who operates a medical marijuana dispensary in Portland. Barnett said he was among many people who saw the shift as a commercial opportunity and in support of personal freedom but said at their core those decisions by voters and the Legislature were more than that.
"They are first and foremost votes for justice. Votes for rational conversation about a plant that was used as a tool of oppression. That was used for discrimination, for for-profit incarceration, pharmaceutical profiteering, racial injustice and cultural war," Barnett said.
He said the failure of the Legislature to not recognize that by giving those convicted of things that were no longer crimes relief would be a disservice to justice.
A work session on the bill, when the committee will consider possible changes to it and may vote to support or oppose it, before sending it to the full Legislature has yet to be scheduled.