Should we forgive marijuana convictions? | The Tylt
Should we forgive marijuana convictions?
Black and Brown people have been frozen out of the marijuana industry because of previous convictions.
Even though research shows people of all races are about equally likely to have broken the law by growing, smoking, or selling marijuana, black people are much more likely to have been arrested for it. Black people are much more likely to have ended up with a criminal record because of it. And every state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana bans people with drug felonies from working at, owning, investing in, or sitting on the board of a cannabis business. After having borne the brunt of the “war on drugs,” black Americans are now largely missing out on the economic opportunities created by legalization.
“It makes complete sense for the Colorado General Assembly to establish a mechanism by which Coloradans convicted of marijuana-related offenses prior to the legalization of marijuana can have these convictions removed from their records,” lawyer Brian Vicente said. “This would help thousands of our citizens — who currently have difficulty getting employment or housing due to prior marijuana convictions — move forward with being productive community members.”
Another 1 million people convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies could petition to have their records changed or cleared, the nonprofit organization estimates. That would give them wider access to jobs, housing and other services that are currently out of reach. “The criminal code changes are so profound that, even if I didn’t like other things in the initiative, I would vote for it just for that,” said Chris Conrad, a longtime marijuana activist who’s backing Prop. 64 even as many friends in the medical cannabis community remain divided over the measure.
The situation is more complex than it seems on the surface. A blanket forgiveness of marijuana crimes ignores contextual issues that may affect the seriousness of the crime.
However, if either the courts or clemency boards take up the work of reviewing past marijuana convictions, they will have to tackle a very thorny issue: Convictions don’t always match the crime that was committed. Many of the low-level offenders who might seek clemency struck plea deals with prosecutors, and those negotiations can obscure the underlying crimes. UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman offers an example: “It’s entirely possible that a guy was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and cannabis, and the plea bargain he pled to was just the cannabis charge.” So how do you determine, sometimes many years later, whether a given conviction actually corresponds to a defendant’s true criminal culpability? And even if a marijuana conviction does in fact correspond to a marijuana offense, are all marijuana offenses created equal? Should it matter whether the 12 ounces of pot someone was busted with came from small-scale farms in Humboldt County, California, or were imported from Mexico by drug cartels?