COVID-19 made getting away from marijuana criminal record more difficult

Drug policy reform activists gather in front of the White House on April 2, 2016. Many of those arrested are still waiting to expunge or seal their cases. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian/Creative Commons

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

BOSTON – Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has begun a third wave in the U.S., states are toeing the line of reopening the economy to help people back into the workforce. Cannabis industry stakeholders and civil rights lawyers question if people with marijuana arrests on their criminal records will be part of Massachusetts’ plan to reopen the economy. 

Even though the state legalized marijuana in 2016, those with marijuana-related arrests in their records are still struggling to get access to housing and jobs. 

Some of the records go back decades, said Marc Shepard, president of New England Cannabis Network. Shepard said that a person charged in his youth is still paying the price years later as an older adult. 

Pauline Quirion, lead attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, has spent years representing clients from low-income, minority communities in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury. In recent years, Quirion has been actively involved in helping those with marijuana-related records seal their records or expunge them. While sealing would hide the record from the public, expunging would destroy it permanently. 

In a Greater Legal Boston Services booklet shared with BU News Service, a petitioner, who as of the date of publication will be 20 years old, wrote: “My record carries a stigma and puts me at a disadvantage in applying for jobs, housing and other opportunities. It is not fair this charge will be on my record because possession of cannabis under two ounces is not a crime.” 

Shepard said that expunging or sealing records could potentially help reduce stigma, but he was concerned about the time it takes to do away with records. 

“In Massachusetts, the process is very slow,” he said. “There’s certainly plenty of people who haven’t had their records totally expunged.”

Information about expungement and sealing is given at a job fair hosted by Greater Boston cannabis operators on Oct. 9. Photo by Kyle Klein

On an administrative level, until last year the state didn’t have a clear view of how many records have been expunged. Now, the expungement and sealing process, once promised to be quick, are caught up in a logjam because of COVID-19.

Back in March, when court hearings for sealing and expungement were stopped, Quirion and her team started sending out sealing forms for processing. Yet it was only as recent as late September and early October that they received notices stating that the charges were sealed.  

“It took us a really, really long period of time,” she said about the sealing process. “[Courts] slowed down tremendously. We [used to] get a reply within maybe two or three weeks after we sent in a sealing petition. But now it takes three months.”

As for expungement, Quirion said she currently has cases that will take months to get an expungement cleared. 

“I had cases that were on for March 17 in the Roxbury court that were continued until the end of August,” she said. 

Quirion said she understood the delay in processes. Courts are, she pointed out, high volume spaces that were left reeling in the wake of the pandemic. Not only were courts forced to reprioritize cases to take up for hearing, some – like the Quincy and Dorchester courts – have chosen to not open hearings for expungement processes, according to Quirion.  

“We’re in a bad situation right now,” she said. “With the moratorium lifted and the economy reopening, people need to get back in the workplace or they’re going to be in serious trouble.”

When the 2018 expungement law came into effect, advocates and industry leaders hailed it as the first important step in criminal reform. However, the law, which allows the expungement of juvenile and criminal records for first offenses committed before age 21, has struggled to address the issue adequately. 

While recounting the story of a client who was only 18 years old when they were charged with possession, Quirion pointed out that the expungement law only decriminalizes possession charges. Distribution is still a crime and not covered by the law, she said.

“I find that some of my clients essentially expunge the possession charge and then say ‘Look, when I look at my record, it’s the one for drug dealing that’s really bad. It’s not the possession,’” she said. 

Shepard pointed out that if someone was charged with a felony a long time ago for marijuana, that felony and conviction dramatically and negatively affect their financial standing for decades.

“If I’ve spent the last 20 years struggling to get an entry-level job because of a felony conviction, it’s like giving me a ticket and saying, ‘Hey, Mark, you can build a skyscraper in downtown Boston if you want,’” he said. “Okay, thanks, I can. Thanks for the opportunity. But how would I?” 

Last year, State Rep. Chynah Tyler, D-Boston, introduced a bill that would automatically expunge all records of marijuana arrests. This law would also help prisoners incarcerated years ago for marijuana charges to petition a release from prisons. 

As of January 2020, 576 inmates in Massachusetts’ prisons were serving sentences related to drugs, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. However, it is not clear how many are in prison because of marijuana possession or distribution. 

Quirion said that a particular clause in Tyler’s bill, which had a public hearing last year, would allow the expungement of charges arising from the distribution of marijuana, not just possession. 

Since arrests made for possession and distribution are unclear, Quirion said that automatic expungement of all marijuana records could save the time spent in petitioning and waiting for approval. 

Recently, Michigan approved the “Clean Slate Act,” which would automatically expunge marijuana-related arrests. Apart from Michigan, similar expungement laws have also found a home in Utah, California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey

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