Cameron Taylor knew that pleading guilty to a felony marijuana possession charge was the surest way to avoid prison and remain in his children’s lives. Little did he know the felony would haunt him for the next decade.
Taylor, 39, has turned his life around since the 2012 conviction but continues to face its consequences. Some employers and landlords reject his applications because of the conviction, barring him from certain jobs and rental housing.
“You basically paid your debt to society, and you continue to keep paying,” said Taylor, a father of five who lives in Minneapolis. “It’s kind of like having the scarlet letter on you.”
Taylor and tens of thousands of other Minnesotans who have committed marijuana-related crimes could see their criminal records sealed if the state Legislature approves a bill to legalize recreational marijuana.
The DFL-controlled House and Senate are seeking to atone for criminalizing the drug in the past by automatically expunging low-level marijuana convictions and creating a Cannabis Expungement Board to review felonies. Their bill also would provide opportunities for those harmed by the war on drugs to open cannabis businesses.
Taylor and other advocates said they hope the Legislature will consider automatically expunging felony marijuana convictions too, if those who committed the crimes didn’t harm anyone.
“Personally, I think every marijuana-related offense should be gone,” said Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. Jon Geffen, who’s worked on expungement cases for 25 years. “If it’s going to be legal, let’s just make it legal and let’s move on.”
More than 60,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases would be eligible for automatic expungement if the bill passes, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension estimates. That includes cases the defendant won or had dismissed, wiping out all records of offenses from arrest to sentencing.
The BCA doesn’t have an estimate for the number of felony-level marijuana cases that would qualify for review by the Cannabis Expungement Board, a spokeswoman said. That’s because the state’s criminal history system is unable to sort felony-level drug cases by the type of drug that was used. A manual review of felony cases would be required if the bill passes.
“I think that’s where this decision in the bill drafting to limit the automatic expungements to just the misdemeanors came from,” said Leili Fatehi, campaign director for MN is Ready, a pro-marijuana coalition that’s working closely with DFL lawmakers. “It’s going to be very difficult to track and identify the people that have felony convictions.”
Those convicted of certain crimes can already have their records sealed, but Minnesota’s existing expungement process is often time-consuming and difficult to navigate, Geffen said. The state Judicial Branch describes expungement as a “complex process” that is better navigated with the help of an attorney.
Minnesotans seeking expungement on their own must petition the courts and pay a filing fee. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and certain county attorney offices — including Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington — offer assistance to people seeking expungement.
Taylor said he once tried to navigate the expungement process by himself but stopped because it was “very confusing.”
Hopkins resident Yoni Reinharz said he’s spent nearly $2,000 on legal representation and fees since being charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession a couple of years ago, and he expects he’ll pay hundreds of dollars more to get the charge expunged.
Officers pulled Reinharz over in 2020 for expired tabs, smelled cannabis and then searched his car and found marijuana in his backpack, he said.
Reinharz, 44, who co-founded the popular Pimento Jamaican Kitchen restaurant in Minneapolis, said he won’t be eligible for expungement until July. Most criminal records have waiting periods of up to five years before they can be expunged.
Geffen said legislators should prioritize making their proposed expungement process fast and easy. Other states that have legalized marijuana and offered expungement have run into a variety of headaches implementing the policy.
“The history of expungement has been [that] people with assets and resources get expungement and people without them don’t. It sort of perpetuates some of the problems we have in our criminal justice system with certain communities being over-represented and over-punished,” Geffen said. “We’ve got to deal with this in a way where we’re not requiring people to do much.”
Black Americans have historically been arrested and charged with marijuana crimes at much higher rates than whites, despite the use of the drug being about equal between the two groups, numerous studies have shown.
In Minnesota, Black residents were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes as whites in 2022, according to BCA data. That disparity could be even higher, considering a fifth of last year’s marijuana arrests do not have race data.
The racial disparity has persisted even as marijuana arrests have been declining in Minnesota in recent years as other drugs — especially meth — have become a higher priority.
The American Civil Liberties Union ranked Minnesota as the eighth-worst state for racial disparities in marijuana arrests in its most recent analysis.
The bill to legalize cannabis in Minnesota would direct grants, loans and entrepreneurship training tailored to communities that “experienced a disproportionate, negative impact from cannabis prohibition.” The new Office of Cannabis Management would also establish a Division of Social Equity to encourage economic development, support youth intervention programs and provide services to prevent violence.
Those who have faced arrest for cannabis crimes — or had immediate family members charged with marijuana offenses — would also have a better shot than others at receiving a cannabis business license.
Still, the most immediate impact for those affected by cannabis prohibition would be the automatic expungement. But not everyone wants to see that happen.
“If we expunge just as a product of passing a bill, it does not give prosecutors or anyone else an opportunity to review that person’s criminal history,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who’d rather see expungements done on a case-by-case basis. “You have to show that you’ve changed your ways.”
The American Medical Association, which opposes cannabis legalization, says states that legalize the drug should nonetheless automatically expunge past offenses.
“It simply isn’t fair to ruin a life based on actions that result in convictions but are subsequently legalized or decriminalized,” AMA Trustee Dr. Scott Ferguson said in a statement last summer. “Automatic expungement would relieve people of having to figure out and pay for the bureaucratic steps necessary for sealing a criminal record.”
Under Minnesota’s bill, violent offenders with felony marijuana convictions would not have their cases considered for expungement, as the bill automatically excludes offenses that involved weapons, violence and threats.
Taylor has no violent offenses on his record but could still wait years for his felony to be expunged. The bill gives the Cannabis Expungement Board five years to review cases and complete its work.
If his conviction were cleared, Taylor said his quality of life would improve dramatically. His record would no longer be a barrier to renting or employment.
Geffen, who’s guided many clients through the expungement process, said people whose records have been wiped clean often obtain better jobs and housing. Beyond those practical benefits, he said expungement can be a cathartic experience. He’s seen people “cry with joy” after being granted expungement by the courts.
“It’s got to be one of the most exciting, more enjoyable hearings I’ve ever done,” Geffen said. “They go back to the court that told them they’re bad and it says, ‘You’ve done well. Good job.’ “
Taylor’s felony hurt his standing in the workforce and set him behind economically. But it did not stop him from providing for his family — he worked for Metro Transit for about seven years. He believes he’ll be able to earn more money if the state clears his record.
“It’s just going to be a matter of immediately opening doors that would’ve previously been closed economically because of the criminal background,” Taylor said. “I’d feel like, sky is the limit.”
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