When marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Colorado, some people there were left in a predicament.
Several hundreds were sitting in state jails for doing something that was now considered legal. Years later, thousands of others still carry the stains of past marijuana convictions on their records, long after those actions have been legalized for recreational purposes.
The same thing happened in Washington, and the same thing happened in Alaska, when those states’ laws went into effect.
But in Oregon, where recreational marijuana became legal on the first of this month, that trend may come to an end. A campaign led by local activist groups and state politicians slipped language into a bill regarding new marijuana regulations that passed the State Senate last week which would retroactively clear the records of people who have been convicted of criminal offenses of “possession, delivery or manufacture” of marijuana.
The bill is expected to be signed by Governor Kate Brown. Washington D.C. unanimously passed a similar law after it legalized marijuana last year. Lawmakers there expected that it could expunge the criminal records of up to 20,000 of the city’s residents.
The Oregon bill, if signed by the Governor, could affect about 50,000 people- Alison Marqusee, research officer, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
In Oregon, that number could reach as high as 50,000, estimated Alison Marqusee, research associate at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest drug policy reform organizations, which has been tracking the bill.
“[The bill is] important because having a criminal record is extremely harmful to someone’s ability to find employment, to their ability to access public benefits, and sometimes for their ability to find affordable housing,” she told Fusion. “There’s no reason for people to continue suffering under the stigma of a criminal record when their actions are no longer a crime.”
Under the passed bill (which goes into effect January 1, 2016, assuming the governor signs it) expungements will be available to those who have only been convicted of marijuana crimes, excluding motor vehicle violations.
It’s part of American law that retroactive expungement for criminal offenses don’t automatically go into effect when something that was previously illegal is legalized. “Here in America we don’t have that, and Oregon is the only state that has specifically included it so far,” said Marqusee.
Like other states, people of color in Oregon are more likely to carry marijuana convictions, even though usage rates are similar among all ethnicities. Black Oregonians are more than twice as likely to get arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts, found a American Civil Liberties Union study released in 2013.
It was Rep. Lew Frederick (D), who represents a district that encompasses Portland’s historic black neighborhood, who began floating the idea of expungement around the state House earlier this year. His bill died, but the passed bill from the Senate closely mirrors it. “This affects whole communities of people,” he told a paper of the lingering marijuana convictions issue earlier this year. “When you have a number of people, especially young black men, who are not eligible to get jobs – young black men, young black women – that affects everyone. If we can address that then we can begin to address a lot of other social issues.”
“When you talk to people out there, you realize that these petty pot charges are ruining people’s lives at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars of economic opportunity to the community as a whole,” Aaron Brown, outreach coordinator for the Oregon Bus Project, an advocacy group which helped campaign for the passage of the bill, told Fusion.
“In Oregon, there wasn’t a ton of backlash on the retroactive measure, because some ways it’s just common sense that that’s what should happen,” he said. “It’s just strange that there had to be a completely different bill about it, after marijuana was already legalized.”
Marqusee of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation agrees.
“We hope that once this law goes into effect, it will help other states start from a better position when they are drafting legislation,” she said. “It should be standard.”