With the tap of a computer key, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Chicago plan in the coming weeks to erase tens of thousands of marijuana convictions from people’s criminal records.
The Los Angeles Times calls it “a key part of a progressive crime-fighting strategy that is seeking to rectify the wrongs of a decades-long drug war.”
Prosecutors say purging arrest and conviction records removes barriers to jobs and housing, helping to improve troubled communities. Jettisoning marijuana convictions has taken on urgency as more states legalize pot and confront the vexing question of how to handle convictions for crimes that are no longer crimes.
“We are undoing the harm prosecutors have caused,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in Chicago. She says,
“Folks are going to be making billions of dollars on this, selling it by the metric ton, on the backs of communities that were devastated by the war on drugs. Is that fair? No.”
Foxx plans on Wednesday to begin clearing 18,000 misdemeanor convictions for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.
The convictions are the first of potentially hundreds of thousands of marijuana cases that could be wiped from the court system. Los Angeles County prosecutors plan to expunge or reduce to lower-level offenses 50,000 marijuana convictions.
“So many people, particularly in communities of color, have been disproportionately affected by cannabis convictions,” said District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Prosecutors are clearing convictions in response to state legislation.
Critics argue that automatically erasing records is a mistake. Marijuana has serious collateral consequences, they argue, noting that the illicit marijuana trade was tied to violent drug gangs. “These are people who were convicted of making a decision to break the law,” said Bob
Bushman of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “They shouldn’t get a free pass like it never happened.”