As lawmakers in the House and Senate attempt to hammer out a deal on legislation to create a legal marketplace for pot, they are also poised to pass a major expansion of the state’s marijuana expungement laws.
Leaders in the House and Senate say they support a measure that would automatically expunge the criminal records of those convicted of possessing two ounces or less of the drug.
It would also decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of the substance — currently, possession of only up to one ounce is legal.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday that passing the expungement policy in the coming weeks, while the Legislature reconvenes for a special budget session, is a priority.
Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she also wants to move forward with the proposal, noting that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana charges.
“Criminal records are a barrier to employment, serving in the military, student loans, housing, and it’s very important to help folks with these criminal records get justice and clean their records,” Grad said.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, also said she supported the measure.
“I am totally supportive of making sure that the people who were charged for crimes that are no longer crimes get some sort of justice,” Johnson said.
The latest push to boost marijuana expungements comes after lawmakers have faced criticism for crafting a bill to legalize a marijuana marketplace bill that doesn’t go far enough to address racial justice issues.
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“We’ve gotten a lot of emails and other correspondence from people who are saying that the bill, S.54, does nothing to promote social justice,” Sears said. “I think it does. But it would be enhanced if we could pass the marijuana expungement this year.”
The bill that would tax and regulate cannabis has some provisions that attempt to address the disproportionate criminalization people of color have faced during marijuana prohibition.
The Cannabis Control Board, the body that regulates the marijuana marketplace, would prioritize granting licenses to minority-owned and women-owned cannabis businesses, for example.
But last week, a coalition of racial justice organizations and advocates for cannabis growers came out in opposition to the bill.
“This bill fails to adequately address the magnitude of the damage or offer any real equitable opportunity for black folks to thrive in this industry,” Mark Hughes, the executive director of Justice for All, a Vermont racial justice organization, wrote in a statement.
“Taxation and regulation of cannabis must be directly linked to addressing the harm caused by the ‘War on Drugs’ and ensuring those impacted have opportunities to thrive,” he wrote.
Legislators backing the expungement proposal said they didn’t know how many people in Vermont have been convicted of possessing two ounces or less of marijuana.
But the number is likely in the thousands.
According to the Crime Research Group, an organization that does analysis and keeps statistics on criminal justice trends in Vermont, before marijuana possession was partially decriminalized in 2013, the state’s courts handed down an average of 500 convictions per year for possession of two ounces or less.
In addition to expanding marijuana expungements, legislative leaders also plan on decriminalizing possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.
Supporters of the policy say they need to extend decriminalization to make the expungement process quicker and less complicated for those with criminal records.
While lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott legalized possession of up to one ounce marijuana in 2018, under previous Vermont law, possession of any amount of the drug under two ounces was a misdemeanor.
This makes it impossible to automatically expunge the records of people who possess one ounce or less.
Under current law, those seeking misdemeanor marijuana expungements have to apply to state courts, which then have to verify that the applicant was found guilty of possessing only an ounce or less of marijuana, and not between one and two ounces.
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“By decriminalizing a second ounce it allows us to, first of all, recognize the evolution of policy and cultural attitudes towards cannabis, and most importantly, automatically expunge records of possession in a way that’s fast and not costly,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden, who originally proposed the marijuana expungement policy.
The marijuana expungement measure already passed the Senate in a larger expungement bill, S.294, that passed the Senate earlier this year.
But Sears said Monday that the marijuana policy would be put into a separate bill.
Even if S.54, the legislation that would create a legal market for cannabis doesn’t pass this year, Sears said he wants the expungement legislation to cross the finish line.
In a statement, Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for the governor, noted that Scott has supported marijuana decriminalization and expungement policies in the past.
But she did not say whether he could support the new measure.
“We’ll need to learn more about the details of these latest proposals and see how this bill evolves in the Legislature,” Kelley said.
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