Marijuana Expungements Can Help Disadvantaged Communities

Growing Support for Marijuana Expungements

In recent months, New Jersey politicians of all sides of the political spectrum have come out in support of marijuana legalization. At community meetings and legislative caucuses, a recurring theme is a call to not just legalize pot, but to undo the damage to Black and Latino communities caused by decades of an aggressive War on Drugs.

Minority communities suffer marijuana arrests at a rate almost twice that of other areas, legacy victims of Reagan-era strategies to code racist policies as “tough on crime. Police departments often fail to record Hispanic/Latino arrests in the same way they do with Black arrests; the New Jersey branch of the ACLU suspects releasing this information would further elevate the racial disparity of marijuana arrests in minority communities.

With Crusader-like zeal, New Jersey has grown their marijuana arrests year-on-year under the directives of the former Christie administration, making more marijuana arrests per-capita in 2017 than any other state.

Those arrested for possession face a criminal record. They could lose the right to adopt children, access public housing, or receive tuition assistance to state colleges. On top of this, the ACLU of New Jersey found that marijuana possession will carry an average of $1255 in fines.

Marijuana Arrests Punish Minority Communities

These arrests carry a hidden price for minority communities. Lost wages and single-parent families result from criminal incarceration for marijuana possession. With a criminal record, citizens lose access to a wide range of support services, from cash assistance to federal educational grants. These criminals further face employment challenges, as most employers look unfavorably on a drug conviction as proof of both poor character and unreliability. And while most crimes can be expunged after a period of good behavior, many drug users carry their conviction to the grave like a scarlet letter.

Unfortunately for New Jersey’s marijuana users, amnesty from prior convictions does not easily follow legalization. Colorado legalized cannabis in 2012, but only began to allow expungements for prior possession last year.

California initially allowed expungements after 2016’s legalization, but the high cost of expungement in California and the lengthy legal process deterred many from following through. Municipalities including San Francisco took more radical steps, automatically expunging simple marijuana possession records since 1975 and downgrading criminal possession records to misdemeanors.

Most of the enforcement action is focused on low hanging fruit. Nine-tenths of arrests are made against recreational smokers, not dealers. The police aren’t busting up drug kingpins and organized crime; they are hauling young men (predominantly men of color) off the streets for recreational use of cannabis and branding them as dangerous criminals. The data available for 2013 shows that in 14 communities across New Jersey, every single cannabis arrest was made for low-level possession, not distribution.

Marijuana Expungements Benefit Families

Presently, New Jersey allows citizens to expunge criminal records once in their life, and with Marijuana charges, only if possession was less than fifty grams. Whether New Jersey lawmakers favor an automated process or simply decide to open marijuana possession to expungement, any actions will require a new administrative framework.

Decriminalization is only the first step towards undoing the damage the War on Drugs has wrought upon minority communities across the state. While many will breathe a sigh of relief that they no longer need to fear to watch their father or brother drug away in handcuffs for smoking a joint, the lives of thousands have already been destroyed by the stigma of a drug conviction.

If New Jersey moves to allow the expungements of most marijuana offenses, members of these vulnerable communities can begin to rebuild their lives and communities from the stigma of drug crimes and criminal records. If New Jersey can muster the political will to grant amnesty to all who were charged with marijuana possession, there is hope for communities to heal from the wounds of racially motivated policing.