VPR / By PETER HIRSCHFELD / FEB 7, 2018
After making some drastic changes to the state’s cannabis laws earlier this year, some lawmakers are now asking whether they should make it easier for people to expunge their old misdemeanor marijuana convictions.
Vermont enacted a marijuana legalization bill last month, which means that starting July 1, people age 21 and older will legally be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to two mature cannabis plants.
But even after the legalization law takes effect, people who get caught with more than an ounce of marijuana may still be subject to criminal prosecution.
Given the state’s new approach to cannabis generally, lawmakers are considering legislation that would fast-track the process for expunging misdemeanor marijuana convictions.
“Any criminal conviction impacts somebody’s ability to maintain housing, employment, student loans … so they do have lifelong grave consequences,” says Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
The proposal would create an expungement fast-track for both old misdemeanor cannabis crimes and for misdemeanor convictions that come after the new marijuana legalization law takes effect.
Robert Sand, director of the Vermont Law School’s Center for Justice Reform, says now that the Legislature is “looking at marijuana in a new light,” it’s also time to reconsider some of the consequences for misdemeanor infractions.
“When a person has paid their debt by virtue of a criminal conviction, that should be finite, that they shouldn’t keep paying by virtue of being saddled with the conviction,” Sand says.
The proposed legislation creates an opportunity for people who have been convicted of possession of between 1 and 2 ounces of marijuana to seek expungement immediately after serving their court-ordered sentence.
The reason 2 ounces is the magic number is that it’s the cutoff for a misdemeanor offense; possession of 2 ounces or more is classified as a felony.
Under current law, people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana offenses have to wait a minimum of five years to be eligible for expungement.
Expungement means the conviction is wiped clean from someone’s criminal record, and that they no longer have to report it on job or student loan applications, for instance.
“Court is not only a place to find fault. … There is room within our judicial system — and it should be appropriately resourced — for court to be a place where rights are restored,” Sand says.
The legislation wouldn’t guarantee expungement for misdemeanor cannabis offenses — state’s attorneys could still object, in which case the matter would settled through a court hearing.
It’s unclear how many people the proposed legislation would benefit. People with misdemeanor marijuana convictions more than five years old are already eligible to seek expungement, unless they’ve subsequently been convicted of another crime.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Scott says the administration needs to review the legislation in more depth before taking a position on it.
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