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Opinion: Marijuana Charge Expungements Can Change Lives

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Her Campus American journalists are free to express opinions. The opinions in this article are not representative of Her Campus American’s opinions as an organization.

It’s a Friday night. In a friend-of-a-friend’s dorm room, eager strangers sit in a circle, passing around a fragrant joint, hoping it won’t set off the smoke alarms. The smell is giving everyone a headache– but they’ll still try it. It’s college, after all, right

For many, that is a rite of passage, a funny story you tell your kids once they’re old enough. For others, a marijuana conviction alters their life forever. 

In the 2022 midterm elections, marijuana legalization was on the ballot in five states. However, the possibility for expungement of nonviolent marijuana-related convictions was only part of the deal in two states: Maryland and Missouri, and passed in both. Marijuana offenses disproportionately impact people of color, particularly Black men. Expungement can give people their lives back and develop a less systemically racist justice system.  

Forty percent of the 1.65 million total drug arrests in the U.S. in 2018 were for marijuana, including arrests for possessing, selling or manufacturing, according to FBI data. That’s 660,000 people in just one year. 

Despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, according to 2010 data from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

Convictions like these can lead to jail time and stain permanent records, which makes it difficult to get a job and housing. This creates a cycle of systemic racism and injustice. 

Marijuana legalization may reduce over-policing in communities of color, where drug possession and distribution is often justification for doing so. “I hope legalization normalizes it in the eyes of police to be less likely to arrest young people,” said Khristine Smith, a licensed clinical social worker.

Although marijuana legalization reduces arrests, many legalization measures don’t acknowledge those who were already convicted. Were these people just caught at the wrong time? 

Under the Maryland constitutional amendment, which legalizes recreational use for those 21 and over, people previously convicted of possession and intent to distribute can  for record expungement. Missouri passed a similar provision. 

Still, the expungement process in most states is not easy. “Expungement is no panacea. It can be a lengthy and expensive process. Automatic expungement would relieve people of having to figure out and pay for the bureaucratic steps necessary for sealing a criminal record,” said Dr. Scott Ferguson to the American Medical Association

Only five of the 21 states where recreational use is legal have provisions so offenders will not have to undergo lengthy and costly processes for expungement, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Racial injustice is related to criminal and financial injustice. Affordable and accessible processes for expungement addresses all three. 

Regardless, this issue divides parties. Khristine Smith, a licensed clinical school social worker for Anne Arundel county public schools in Maryland, is a registered Democrat and a Maryland voter. 

“I have a student whose parents both have medical marijuana cards, so it’s in their home…She’s told me that she’ll be upset or angry at her boyfriend, and the mom will say ‘hey go grab a joint and chill out,’ so the parent is actually providing it for her child,” Smith said. 

While Smith is an advocate for decriminalization because the drug is not necessarily physically harmful, she worries that legalization may increase access for young people, like her students. 

“The brain is not fully developed until age 22 to 23, especially the frontal lobe that controls executive functioning and decision making abilities,” said Smith, concerned about motivation, academic performance and uninformed decisions.

However, she realizes that young people “are using it whether it’s legal or not.” In 2019, 37% of U.S. high school students reported using marijuana in their lifetime, according to the CDC.  When this figure was reported, recreational use was only legal in 10 states, meaning that the majority of students surveyed were using marijuana when it was not even legal in their state for those 21 and over.  

This makes saving the livelihoods of Black individuals with marijuana offenses more important than potentially protecting a handful of youths, because they already found access anyway. 

While marijuana will likely become more readily available for young people in states where it is legalized, it will also be more regulated, which will reduce the prevalence of unsafe or laced drugs which can be lethal.  

Expunging marijuana convictions through streamlined processes will change the lives of Black individuals for generations to come. They will no longer be villainized for usage that is normalized among everyone. 

Maryland and Missouri are headed in the right direction with their propositions on expungement for marijuana convictions. Now, they must remain accountable, and create processes that are accessible, affordable and nuanced, to be models in chipping away at the layers of systemic injustice. 

Sana Mamtaney (she/her) is a third-year student at American University studying journalism and political science. She loves writing about social justice issues and how they affect our daily lives. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, watching reality TV, and listening to Hozier and One Direction.