Legislators look to clear pot offenders’ records

  • A close-up of a flowering marijuana plant in the production room of Modern Health Concepts' greenhouse on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS) C.M. Guerrero

  • FILE - This Sept. 15, 2015 file photo shows marijuana plants with their buds covered in white crystals at a medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. U.S. women are increasingly using marijuana during pregnancy, sometimes to treat morning sickness, new reports suggest. Though the actual numbers are small, the trend raises concerns because of evidence linking the drug with low birth weights and other problems. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File) Seth Perlman

  • FILE - This this Nov. 21, 2014, file photo shows medical marijuana, a pipe, rolling papers and two joints in Belfast, Maine. The first tangible results of state voters’ decision to legalize marijuana are being felt as possession and home growth of marijuana becomes legal Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. Voters narrowly passed the ballot question in November, and the waiting period between the vote and legalization has expired. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) Robert F. Bukaty

Published: 3/16/2017 12:09:02 AM

Three bills seeking the removal of certain marijuana convictions from criminal records will go before the state’s Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy.

Two of the bills have been presented in the Senate while a third was a presented in the House of Representatives.

Reps. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, and Byron Rushing, D-Boston, co-presented H.2785, “An Act relative to the expungement of records of marijuana arrests.”

“The goal is to have the conversation about what we should be doing now that the legal system around marijuana is changing,” Vega said Wednesday night.

Vega also serves on the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy.

The bill would allow those arrested, convicted or incarcerated for marijuana offenses to apply to have their records expunged of those charges that are no longer illegal.

“It doesn’t make sense that people are still suffering now that it is legalized,” Vega said.

Having a record for marijuana-related offenses could hinder a person’s ability to find a job, housing or even affect custody issues.

“The purpose of this law is to correct the record for people whose conduct may have been against the law back in the day but are no longer illegal offenses,” Northampton attorney Michael Cutler said.

“Criminal records are important markers for some types of future behavior but for many people the impact of a criminal record on their future locks them into a bad choice for the rest of their careers and it can influence everything else.”

Cutler specializes in helping clients understand the state’s medical marijuana law and participated in drafting the language of the ballot initiative legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. He also helped with Vega’s bill and another from Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville.

Jehlen’s bill is nearly identical to Vega’s. Jehlen’s bill includes language that would require the compilation of a list of those convicted of an expungable offense within the last five years.

“Ending the stigma and social harm for a criminal record for responsible adult use is part of the correction of the prohibition,” Cutler said.

Expungement, or the removal of marijuana records, would not affect things that still remain illegal such as the sale of marijuana without a license.

The outlook is positive for the bill, or bills like it, as the Legislature is in the process of looking at justice reform in a broader scope, according to Vega.

“I think the big unknown with this bill and with the whole move to recreational marijuana is dependent on the federal government,” Vega said. “Is the federal government going to somehow come in ... are they going to do stuff to make it impossible to move forward with the voters’ will?”

If the federal government does, Vega said, it would likely temper the state legislators’ appetite for dealing with the issue.

As for the timeline of the bill, Vega said the committee likely will first address issues directly connected with Question 4, the statewide referendum that legalized recreational marijuana use.

“People want to get moving with this,” Vega said. “Nobody on the committee wants to hold up the will of the voters but some of the extra issues not in the ballot question might slow things down.”

Cutler echoed Vega’s sentiments on not hindering progress in enacting the will of the voters.

“The sooner we get real about marijuana, the sooner we have an operating cannabis industry, the sooner we too will enjoy the benefits in terms of public safety, public health and in terms of economy,” Cutler said.

Following the completion of a bill to address lingering issues surrounding Question 4, Vega envisioned a second bill which could address additional issues including expungement of records and how to determine whether a driver is under the influence of marijuana.

A bill introduced by Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, would allow for those convicted of possessing up to an ounce of cannabis to petition for an expungement.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.

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