Jim Robinson is close to opening a retail marijuana shop in Chicopee, but until recently, cannabis actually might have been holding him back from getting work. Robinson had two minor offenses for possession of marijuana on his criminal record.
“I had an active childhood, I guess,” Robinson said.
Having those criminal offenses for marijuana “prevented me from possibly applying to jobs because it was on my record,” said Robinson, who worked in architecture prior to his new business venture.
Last week, he attended a clinic in Holyoke advising people on how to remove, seal, or reclassify eligible convictions as part of National Expungement Week, an effort by cannabis advocates to inform people of laws allowing them to clear their records of past marijuana offenses.
In Massachusetts, Robinson, who is the owner of Jim Buddy’s Vape shop on Memorial Drive and a budding cannabis business next door, was able to take advantage of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 and have his past marijuana offenses sealed by going online and submitting a petition to the state.
But Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse believes that people like Robinson should have their offenses expunged automatically, and that the law does not go far enough in helping clear people’s criminal records of past low-level marijuana convictions.
“We’ve seen other state governments and district attorneys nationwide be bold on this in terms of automatically expunging records that are charges for crimes no longer considered crimes,” Morse said. “The state can be more proactive to automatically expunge records and take the burden off people with those (records).”
State law allows people to seal or expunge convictions for possession of small amounts of marijuana and some other non-violent crimes for free. Robinson’s record seal means it will limit who has access to those records, and it only required submitting a petition to the state. Expungement, which differs from sealing in that records of a case are destroyed and are no longer available, is a process that requires a judge’s approval.
“In this day and age,” Robinson said, “it shouldn’t be a dark spot on your record.”
Organizations across the country hosted clinics last week to provide free advice on how to take advantage of the law and remove, seal, or reclassify eligible convictions relating to marijuana. Nueva Esperanza and the Pioneer Valley Cannabis Industry Summit (PVCIS), a local non-profit, joined organizations across the country and major cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York in attempting to help integrate those disenfranchised by the war on drugs.
Robinson said the process wasn’t too difficult to navigate; he found directions online (masslegalhelp.org/cori/sealing-expunging-decriminalized-marijuana-charges-booklet7.pdf), filled out the petition, and he did not require formal legal assistance to complete it. Robinson said he attended the clinic at Nueva Esperanza because he is planning on running a similar event next year in order to help people in expunging or sealing their past marijuana-related convictions.
Morse said on Monday he would like to see the law go further — automatically expunging records for those who qualify rather than putting the burden on residents, as well as broadening who qualifies for expungement and sealing.
“Right now (expungement) is limited to a certain part of the community,” Morse said in an interview. “It’s important for the state to do more to make expungement possible for more members of the community.”
The current law only allows offenses committed prior to the age of 21 to be expunged. Morse said he would like the state to remove that age requirement.
Frank Dailey, a board member for PVCIS, said for those with marijuana convictions on their criminal records, it presents a significant obstacle when seeking employment.
“It’s hard to come out and have opportunities to prove yourself,” Dailey said of people who have had convictions for past crimes that are no longer considered illegal.
People seeking to expunge or seal their records have to file a petition to the clerk’s office in the court where cases were heard with written explanations of why the records should be expunged or sealed. The copies of the petition must also be filed to the District Attorney’s Office that prosecuted the case.
In order to qualify for a record sealing or expungement, the past criminal case has to be for possession of two ounces or less, according to MassLegalHelp.org. Courts also have the discretion to expunge a record based on what is in the “best interests of justice,” according to the law.
In New York, a new bill signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July automatically sealed more than 202,000 convictions for possession of marijuana and nearly 24,000 people no longer have a criminal record, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The Cannabis Control Commission has identified Holyoke as one of 29 communities in the state — including Amherst, Greenfield and Springfield — disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, and Morse said that past criminal convictions of low-level marijuana crimes has created “too many barriers to housing and employment.”
“We have a higher than average percentage of the population that have been targeted by the war on drugs, mostly Latinos of Puerto Rican descent who have records relating to possession or distribution of marijuana,” Morse said. Broader expungement qualifications would mean that more people would have access to various cannabis-related jobs as well.
“We’ve been disproportionately impacted and it’s important that we do all we can to make sure Holyoke residents, in particular, have access to the cannabis industry,” he said.