Opening Statements

Oregonians get a chance to erase marijuana-growing convictions

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Illustration by Stephen Webster

When voters in five jurisdictions legalized recreational marijuana, "overcriminalization" was one of the arguments they considered. Among other things, proponents of legalization argued that it's unfair and unnecessary to stigmatize people for life with criminal convictions for nonviolent drug use.

But Oregon is the only state to have taken the next step: permitting its citizens to expunge convictions for past marijuana crimes that would be not be crimes today. (In 2014, the Colorado Court of Appeals granted much more limited retroactivity for possession offenders.) And last summer, the Oregon legislature expanded eligibility for setting aside criminal judgments to include marijuana-growing convictions.

The Oregon Judicial Department says applications for expungements involving at least one marijuana offense roughly doubled in 2015 to 335, compared to 170 in 2014. In the state’s most populous county, Multnomah, applications went from 13 in 2014 to 49 in 2015. The Oregon State Police estimate that 78,300 people in the state are eligible.

Some of those people have been calling up Paul Loney of Portland and Ashland’s Loney Law Group, who practices all aspects of cannabis law. He says that even business clients have been asking him about expungement.

“They were worried that they wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the regulated, legalized marketplace because a lot of them had past convictions,” says Loney, who has served as legal counsel for the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for more than 13 years. State regulators said “they wouldn’t allow anyone with a felony to work in the industry,” Loney adds.

Others have been showing up at the regular expungement clinic run by Alex Bassos, who is an attorney with the Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland. Bassos says he’s been getting increased traffic lately—but he thinks it’s because there’s been a lot of media attention for expungement of marijuana crimes. Most of those crimes have been expungeable for decades, Bassos notes. And they weren’t penalized very harshly to begin with; possession of less than an ounce previously carried about the same penalties as a traffic ticket.

“The expansion primarily has been to allow manufacturing of marijuana—which is our term for growing marijuana—to be eligible,” Bassos says.

That means that the main beneficiaries of the change in the law are people convicted in “grow-op” cases, he says, or people caught with a few plants in their basements. But that’s still good news, Bassos says.

“Those are often nonviolent convictions where the person has never had any sort of trouble with the law at all, since then or before,” he says. “So they’re people who, assuming you agree with expungement at all, you should agree that that person should be able to get it.”

And even if the opportunity isn’t new, expungement can change lives, Bassos says.

“Employment and housing stand out as obvious situations where they’re probably going to pull a criminal record,” Bassos adds. “But licensing, education, volunteer opportunities, dating—it’s hard to actually define a domain of life where, in this modern world, a criminal conviction won’t impede you from living to your full life’s potential.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Green and Clean: Oregonians get a chance to erase marijuana-growing convictions.”

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