Legal weed: Should past crimes be cleared?

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Speed read

What's happening: On Tuesday, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use. The legislation also includes a provision that will allow nearly 800,000 people to have existing offenses for buying or selling marijuana scrubbed from their records.

Several other states that have legalized pot have created similar methods for pot-related convictions to be either reduced in severity or cleared completely. There are roughly 600,000 marijuana arrests a year in the United States.

Why there's debate: Proponents of these measures argue that people shouldn't continue to be punished for having committed acts that are no longer illegal in their states. Some also make the case for expunging records on social justice grounds, given the significant racial imbalance among those who are convicted of drug crimes.

Others believe expungement makes economic sense, because it alleviates the expense of incarceration and makes it easier for former offenders to join the workforce and contribute to the tax base. Those who were punished when pot was illegal, some say, are left out of the booming marijuana industry, since most states that have legalized marijuana bar anyone with a criminal record from participating in the legal weed business.

Opponents of the idea argue that the convictions should stand because the offenses were crimes at the time they were committed. There is also, of course, significant resistance to marijuana legalization in general.

What's next: Legal marijuana use seems likely to spread to even more states in the near future. Illinois was the first state to pass full legalization through the legislative process, rather than passing the measure through voter referendum. Lawmakers in states that are considering bills to legalize or decriminalize marijuana use, such as New York and New Jersey, have made expungement of pot offenses a core part of the debate.


Marijuana convictions can have a severe impact on people's lives

"No one should underestimate how much even the most minor of misdemeanor convictions — including marijuana or trespassing or any kind of conviction — can affect someone's ability to get a job, to get housing and to function fully in society." — American University law professor Jenny Roberts to NPR

It's unfair for people to still be punished by old laws when others are able to profit off new ones

"Before a single Wall Street-loving yacht owner makes another dollar off a demonized plant with long-known medicinal properties, every single person who was thrown into the criminal justice system for enjoying it should get their lives back as much as possible." — Simon Moya-Smith, NBC News

Marijuana shouldn't be legal

"Marijuana’s risks are different from opioids’, but they are no less real. Let’s remember that hard truth as we listen to promises that allowing the use of this drug will do no harm." — Alex Berenson, New York Times

Pot arrests hold people back from making economic progress

"Once arrested, men and women are ensnared in a Kafkaesque system that critically compromises their ability to succeed and participate in society. An arrest record can prevent them from obtaining employment, housing, student loans, and litany of other collateral consequences." — Khalil Cumberbatch, New York Daily News

Clearing records would help fix the racially imbalanced impact of the war on drugs

"Marijuana use in the U.S. is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet, on average, blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession." — Kevin Aldridge, Cincinnati Enquirer

Racial inequities in criminal justice won't be fixed by changing marijuana laws

"The research bolstering the argument that the disparities reflect discriminatory law enforcement is squishy at best, as is the claim that legalization in other states has made a substantial difference in reducing the disparities." — editorial, Asbury Park Press

Past marijuana convictions are causing people of color to be left out of the growing legal cannabis industry

"Marijuana legalization and the businesses that profit from it are accelerating faster than efforts to expunge criminal records, and help those affected by them participate in the so-called 'Green Boom.' And the legal cannabis industry is in danger of becoming one more chapter in a long American tradition of disenfranchising people of color." — Jenni Avins, QZ

Clearing a conviction should happen automatically or be easy

"The problem is the mechanism for getting one's marijuana record expunged varies from state to state, and in most places it ranges from burdensome to nearly impossible." — C.J. Ciaramella, Reason

Clearing pot convictions would not make a meaningful difference in incarceration levels

"It’s fair to say that marijuana prohibition — and even the war on drugs more broadly — is not the major driver of mass incarceration." — German Lopez, Vox

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