Before Proposal 1, arrests for marijuana offenses in Michigan were shockingly common. In 2016, there were more arrests for cannabis-related offenses than there were for shoplifting, making up 11.4% of all arrests in the state, according to Michigan State Police data.
A huge number of these arrests resulted in convictions. Over the last five years, nearly 50,000 Michiganders were convicted of misdemeanour cannabis offenses.
What happens to these individuals, who are either currently awaiting prosecution, serving jail time, on probation or otherwise suffering from the stigma of their conviction history, now that their crimes are no longer illegal?
The high price of a criminal record
Having a criminal record can significantly impact your life. Employers, banks and private mortgage lenders can discriminate on the basis of criminal convictions, affecting your ability to find a job, start a business or buy a home.
Barton Morris is the founder and principal attorney at Cannabis Legal Group, a Detroit-based law firm specializing in marijuana-related legal issues. He’s appalled that the people of Michigan are still suffering the consequences for cannabis-related convictions.
“Imagine if an adult were to be denied employment, business loans and other opportunities because they had a possession of alcohol on their record, even though it’s legal,” says Morris. “That is what it's like for an adult convicted of possession of marijuana.”
Worse still, Michigan’s minority population were unfairly targeted by possession laws, widening the opportunity gap. “It's unfair for anyone to have a criminal conviction for what is now legal—this is especially true because minorities were disproportionately convicted of marijuana offenses by over three times as other people,” he adds. “Expunging these convictions is the only way to restore that extreme injustice.”
Expungement in Michigan: Where are we now?
Barton Morris is the founder and principal attorney at Cannabis Legal Group, a Detroit-based law firm specializing in marijuana-related legal issues.
Unlike California, Prop 1 didn’t include any provisions to expunge past convictions once cannabis was made legal. Initial drafts did include such provisions but were removed to help gain greater support for the initiative.
Disappointed with the governor's lack of action, especially since both the Governor and Attorney General had publicly supported marijuana expungements in the past, Morris is calling for better legislature to expedite the process.
“They are waiting for the legislature but they cannot figure it out,” says Morris. “Only the Governor can commute the marijuana sentences people are currently serving. Pressure needs to be placed upon that office for some action.”
Unfortunately, Michigan is still a far cry from what Morris says is the ideal scenario: where all non-violent possession, delivery and manufacturing offenses in which firearms were not involved are expunged, and all those currently serving sentences have them immediately commuted.
How can I get my record expunged?
As it stands, those who have been previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense must qualify under Michigan’s strict expungement requirements and must apply to have their convictions expunged from their records.
To expunge a criminal record, you must file a motion with the court in which you were convicted. There will be hearing where you will present your case—sometimes before the same judge who convicted you. You will need to bring two complete sets of fingerprints and a certified record of conviction. A certified copy of the probation order, the case history (register of actions), or the judgment of sentence are all acceptable. Each certified copy of record comes with a $10 fee (plus $1.00 for every page of the record). In addition, you must fill out the application to set aside conviction form to sign before the court.
It’s a lengthy, burdensome process, and it doesn’t guarantee your record will be cleared. Bonita Money, a cannapreneur and advocate for legalization, says one of the major roadblocks towards expungement is awareness. “Most people don’t know about it,” she says, and that’s where awareness and outreach programs come in.
Other states that have legalized cannabis have more efficient ways to expedite the expungement process. California set a precedent in 2016 with The Clear My Record program, a software created by the non-profit organization Code for America. Its algorithm searches through court files to identify eligible people for expungement — no petition or motion required.
With this software, San Francisco has automatically cleared 8,100 convictions dating back to 1975.
“Using technology, we have been able to proactively bring greater racial equity and fairness to marijuana legalization in California,” San Fransico District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement. “I am thrilled to see other counties and states following suit by offering similar relief in their communities. It’s the right thing to do.”
Thankfully, we’re beginning to see movement here in Michigan. Earlier this month, State Senator Jeff Irwin presented a bill to institute automatic expungement of low-level cannabis misdemeanours. The legislation could affect 235,000 residents living with a criminal record for a crime that is now legal. Irwin says the bill will make expungement more accessible for vulnerable and low-income Michiganders, who can’t afford lawyer fees or time off to attend court dates as currently required by the case-by-case expungement system.
This novel approach could change thousands of lives in Michigan, taking the burden off individuals to submit petitions while also reducing work for district attorneys offices. If you or someone you know is currently living with a cannabis-related conviction you’d like to see overturned, Morris advises to pressure your politicians for change. “People who want their marijuana convictions expunged should contact the Governor’s office and demand the action she said she would support,” Morris says.
Bonita Money takes it a step further. She’s urging Michiganders to band together to precipitate a movement towards real change.
“Right now, I’m not seeing people in Detroit working together to move policy,” she says. “We need to work together and push for what we want. If you’re not vocal about it, you can’t expect politicians to do it.”