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What Michigan can learn from California’s effort to expunge marijuana convictions

A police car seen through the side mirror on a car.
Craig Finlay
Creative Commons
When California voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, the law permitted those with prior marijuana-related convictions to petition to have their cases reviewed. Now, advocates in Michigan are pushing the state to consider a similar provision.

There are roughly 50,000 people in Michigan who have been convicted of cannabis-related crimes. Now that voters have legalized recreational marijuana, advocates are working to get those convictions cleared.

That same process began in California after voters legalized recreational cannabis there in 2016. We talk to Capital Public Radio reporter Scott Rodd about what Michigan might learn from California's experience. 

Rodd says that Proposal 64, the ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana in California, included language stating that people who were arrested and convicted on charges related to marijuana could petition the courts to have their records reviewed, and potentially cleared or reduced.

Michigan's marijuana legalization law, Proposal One, did not have any similar mandate. But organizers of the ballot initiative campaign have said that they hope the Michigan Legislature will pass an expungement law. 

Rodd says having a marijuana-related conviction on your record can hurt your chances of getting into college or finding a job. It can also restrict you from accessing certain government benefits. 

“It’s not simply having a blemish on your criminal record. It has a pretty significant impact beyond that,” Rodd explained.

California expected a “flood of appeals” when the law was first passed, but Rodd says that things didn’t really pan out that way. That's because not everyone who was eligible to have their convictions reviewed knew it was an option. Criminal justice reform advocates and cannabis industry groups have been trying to get the word out, and Rodd says the state has also taken steps to reach people with marijuana convictions.

“Last year, there was a law that was passed, signed by Governor Brown, that requires the state Department of Justice to identify people who may be eligible for clearance or reduction, and to send those convictions to county prosecutors by this summer,” Rodd explained.

Cities like Sacramento and San Francisco and Los Angeles have said they plan to move even faster to review convictions in their local databases. 

While Michigan does not yet have a law requiring a review of marijuana-related crimes, Rodd says California's experience has lessons to teach if state lawmakers choose to move forward on legislation. Most importantly, he says, is making sure that there's a plan to ensure that people with prior marijuana convictions know what their options are.

“I think putting a law on the books is one thing, but ensuring that there’s clarity to that, that there is clear communication about that, and that there’s support along the way for folks who do want to take advantage of the opportunity to clear their past convictions [is also important],” Rodd said.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to continue the conversation, join Joshua Johnson host of 1A this week in Detroit. Joshua will be hosting a community conversation this Thursday, May 16 at The Wright Museum. He will be discussing marijuana legalization and primarily its impact on minority communities. The event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. More information is on the Facebook event.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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