To loosely quote William Shakespere, “this is (definitely) the winter of our discontent.” In addition to the chaos, tyranny and downright un-American behavior from President Donald Trump during his final days in office, let’s not forget it is also pardoning season.
Trump is preparing a long pardon list of criminals, celebrities, family members and even his lawyers. He is considering preemptive pardons and even pardoning himself.
It’s hard to imagine a president who has been impeached, not once but twice now by the U.S. House of Representatives, could be allowed to pardon anyone, especially given his recent incitement of anger, hostility and violence against the very government he leads. CNN and others are reporting the president plans to issue around 100 pardons and commutations on Tuesday.
And while we will likely see his remaining pardons used in the most appalling ways possible, it is important that pardoning power gets used for what it was intended for: forgiveness and an opportunity for second chances. The question isn’t about whether the president’s pardons are legal, it becomes a moral and ethical question of his use of the power to pardon.
I bring this up because when it comes to doing the right thing in overturning marijuana convictions and giving people a second chance, our state made history (as we tend do on marijuana matters). In October Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order under bipartisan legislation passed by the state legislature to pardon 2,732 marijuana convictions with possessions of an ounce or less of marijuana (the law allows for a pardon for up to two ounces or less). These convictions, which date as far back as 50 years, in many cases significantly and gravely affected the lives of those past offenders. In many instances, the convictions made it hard or impossible to secure a job, housing, student loans and impacted countless areas of their lives for something that is no longer illegal in the state.
It is remarkable and also ridiculous that these minor convictions would follow someone for the rest of their life and have such a potent impact. Polis’ pardons have given many people a new lease on life. And Colorado isn’t the only state focused on wiping the slate clean.
While marijuana is legal now in 15 states and approved for medical use virtually nationwide. The overwhelming approval for legalization in the recent election (recreational or adult-use in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, and medical legalization in Mississippi) made marijuana more mainstream across the country, however eliminating prior convictions for its use has been exceedingly more challenging. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), only 17 states have enacted legislation “explicitly permitting, or facilitating the process of having past marijuana convictions expunged, vacated, otherwise set aside, or sealed from public view.”
States are facing an urgent call to expunge or erase low-level marijuana convictions. This is why expungement must be a part of a state’s legislative efforts to legalize cannabis going forward.
Last month before the end of the 116th Congress, Congressman Kwanza Hall (D-GA), who for one month filled the seat of former Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) filed a bill to expunge all federal records for people with non-violent drug convictions and put pressure on state and local governments to do the same. The incoming Biden administration is also on record supporting the notion of expungements for low-level marijuana offenses. Studies show that expungement can have a positive effect for those with prior low-level marijuana convictions going forward.
A study published in the Harvard Law Review found that “people who receive expungements have extremely low subsequent crime rates which defuses a common public-safety objection to expungement laws.” They also saw that within a year, their salaries increase by more than 22%.
More marijuana pardons are certainly possible going forward in the state. And as presidential pardoning season comes to an end, the possibilities for real reform can become a reality with a new political majority in the U.S. Senate and new leadership in the White House.
Mara Sheldon is a senior policy advisor at Squire Patton Boggs and the former communications director and spokesperson for Jared Polis’ campaign for Colorado.
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