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Over the past five years state courts have expunged or sealed the records of more than two million cannabis-related cases, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reported this week. 

According to an analysis of public data carried out by NORML, states and local courts have taken action on an estimated 2.3 million cases. NORML stated that California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia are the states that have been the most active in expunging or sealing cases. 

Expungements seal past convictions from public view. In most legal cannabis states, lawmakers have enacted measures to help facilitate and provide pathways for expungement for people with non-severe cannabis convictions. This includes states in which the process has been automated. For instance, New Jersey, where state officials reported in 2021 that they had dismissed or vacated more than 360,000 cannabis cases and/or convictions. 

In Illinois, state officials announced in April 2023 that they had expunged more than 800,000 cannabis convictions and arrest records. 

But states have also taken steps to enact pardons. NORML cites examples from several legal cannabis states to show how far-reaching the state court efforts have been. These include Nevada, where in June 2018 Governor Steve Sisolak initiated a move to issue blanket pardons for around 15,000 people who were convicted of offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis. Another example that sticks out in the NORML analysis is Oregon, where in November 2022, Governor Kate Brown announced her intention to pardon more than 45,000 state residents with low-level cannabis convictions.

According to NORML estimates, state and local police have made more than 29 million cannabis-related arrests since 1965. Around 90 percent of these were for low-level possession. 

“A Step Towards Restorative Justice”

In October 2022, President Joe Biden announced his decision to pardon all prior federal offenses for “simple possession of marijuana” and urged all governors to do the same regarding state cannabis offenses.  

NAACP Vice President of Police and Legislative Affairs Patrice Willoughby called the move “a step towards restorative justice.”

In December 2023, Biden announced his decision to pardon all current U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who were convicted of the possession of cannabis, attempted simple possession or use of marijuana “regardless of whether they have been charged with or prosecuted for these offenses on the date of this proclamation.” 

Biden’s pardons do not cover cannabis offenses on the state level. 

Unequal enforcement of drug laws

For decades, the enforcement of cannabis laws has disproportionately affected non-white Americans. According to a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparable usage rates. The report, entitled “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” found that in every state, “black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested.”

The report found that these racial disparities exist also in states that legalized or decriminalized cannabis. In addition, marijuana arrests still made up 43% of all drug arrests in 2018, and there were more cannabis arrests in 2018 than 2015, even though 8 states had legalized recreational marijuana by then. 

Expungement as a key aspect of legalization

Typically when states legalize cannabis, mechanisms are put into place to allow for the expungement of low-level marijuana offenses. 

In Minnesota, where cannabis legalization went into effect last August, the state’s legalization guidelines include the mandatory expungement of certain criminal records. Last week, the Department of Public Safety announced that based on initial analysis, more than 66,000 criminal history records are eligible for automatic expungement and an additional 230,000 felony records are eligible for review by the state’s Cannabis Expungement Board.

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Ben Hartman, Content Manager

Ben Hartman is a cannabis writing and marketing professional with over 15 years of experience in journalism and digital content creation. Ben was formerly the senior writer and research and analysis lead for The Cannigma.

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