Clearing cannabis criminal records: A survey of criminal record expungement availability and accessibility among US States and Washington DC that decriminalized or legalized cannabis


Background:

In 2022, despite expanding state-level legalization, cannabis remained illegal at the federal level, driving drug offenses, and contact with the justice system. Cannabis criminalization disproportionately impacts minorities, and criminal records carry negative economic, health, and social consequences. Legalization prevents future criminalization but fails to assist existing record-holders. We surveyed 39 states and Washington DC where cannabis was decriminalized or legalized to determine record expungement availability and accessibility for cannabis offenders.


Methods:

We performed a retrospective, qualitative survey of state expungement laws allowing record sealing or record destruction where cannabis use was decriminalized or legalized. Statutes were collected between February 25, 2021, and August 25, 2022, from state websites or NexisUni. We collected pardon information for two states from online state government resources. Materials were coded in Atlas.ti to determine if states had general, cannabis, and other drug conviction expungement regimes, petitions, or automated systems, waiting periods, and financial requirements. Codes were developed via inductive and iterative coding of materials.


Results:

Among places surveyed, 36 provided any conviction expungement, 34 provided general relief, 21 offered cannabis-specific relief, and 11 offered general drug relief, nonexclusively. Most states used petitions. Thirty-three general and 7 cannabis-specific programs required waiting periods. Nineteen general and 4 cannabis programs imposed administrative fees, and 16 general and one cannabis-specific program required legal financial obligations to be paid.


Conclusion:

Among the 39 states and Washington DC that decriminalized or legalized cannabis and offered expungement, more states relied on general rather than cannabis-specific systems, and the majority of these required record holders to petition for relief and imposed waiting periods and financial requirements. Research is needed to determine if automating expungement, reducing or eliminating waiting periods, and eliminating financial requirements may expand record relief for former cannabis offenders.


Keywords:

Cannabis; Criminal justice; Expungement; Public health; Social justice.

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