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Working at the intersection of the cannabis industry, racial equity, and reparative justice, activities around National Expungement Week (N.E.W.), from Sept. 21–29, 2019, seek to right some of the wrongs and social injustices stemming from the war on drugs.

Now in its second year, N.E.W.'s goal is to provide legal services to as many people as possible by helping them clear up convictions and the consequences that often extend well beyond the completion of a prison or jail sentence, stifling opportunities and civil rights that most take for granted.

Some 77 million Americans, or 1 in 3 adults, have a criminal record and are routinely blocked from getting good jobs, housing, government assistance, educational loans and, in many cases, reinstating their voting rights.  

“Too many people are locked up in this country, and far too many people are still locked out of society long after they've completed their sentence,” said Torie Marshall, Director of Programs at Cage-Free Repair, one of the leading organizations behind N.E.W. along with Equity First Alliance.

 With more than three dozen organizations involved, N.E.W. has enlisted the participation of numerous attorneys, organizers, educators, community leaders and activists nationwide who will provide information on expungement opportunities and clemency petitions where possible.

More than 40 events are scheduled to take place throughout the week, including no-cost clinics and workshops to help people to start the process of removing, sealing, or reclassifying eligible convictions from their criminal records, depending on local legislation. Attendees will learn from experts how to get their arrest records expunged and where to receive the necessary forms to undertake the process.

“This week offers a way to provide legal relief and wraparound services to justice-impacted people and their families while calling for automated expungement,” Marshall said via email.

The Equity First Alliance points out that in addition to providing expungement assistance, there will be nationwide events where people can also get advice on immigration issues, enrollment in public benefits programs, job opportunities, health screenings, legal advice, and guidance on fulfilling educational needs.

Cannabis Convictions

While expungement services are open to everyone in need, a large number of people expected to seek help are victims of the drug war and former pot prisoners, which number in the hundreds of thousands.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance:

  • In 2017, there were 1.7 million arrests in the U.S. for drug law violations.
  • Of that number, 1.4 million, or 85%, were for drug possession only.
  • The number of people arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2017 was 659,700, or about 39% of all drug arrests.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, pointed out that in 2017 there were more arrests in the U.S. for marijuana possession than for violent crimes. That was also true of 2016 and 2015.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) confirmed that marijuana arrests are much higher. The organization's tally found that over half of all drug arrests in the U.S. are for marijuana. Between 2001 and 2010, out of 8.2 million pot arrests, 88% were for simple possession.  

Adding to these statistics, arrest data reveal a further disturbing trend: racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, the ACLU noted. 

Those statistics underscore the urgent need for expungement, said Tracey Henry, the New York-based spokesperson for N.E.W.

“Though expungement legislation, especially when in the case of cannabis convictions, has gained some acceptance across the political spectrum, but the laws themselves present a virtual web of legal procedures, red tape, and restrictions,” Henry told Weedmaps News.

“For that reason, we need to solidify N.E.W.'s push to expand access to expungement and streamline the use of automated expungement,” she said.

Automated expungement is available in some states, Henry said. 

In February 2019 San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that more than 8,000 marijuana-related convictions going back to 1975 were erased or reduced.

In Illinois, as part of a bill signed into law in June 2019, about 800,000 marijuana arrests and convictions were automatically expunged. In Cook County, home of Chicago, Code for America worked with authorities to expunge records.

Michigan, the first Midwestern state to legalize adult-use cannabis, introduced a bill in July 2019 to allow roughly 235,000 misdemeanor pot possession records to be automatically expunged.

Massachusetts, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2018, still requires people to go through a legal process to amend their records.

Cities holding N.E.W. events, which have nearly doubled in number from 16 in 2018 to 30 in 2019, are Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Events Coinciding with N.E.W.

N.E.W.'s launch on September 21 coincided with the seventh Annual Code For America's National Day of Civic Hacking, which brought together civic leaders, public servants, designers, coders, and engaged citizens who are partnering with local government and community groups to help those affected by the criminal justice system, particularly in the area of record clearance.

N.E.W. also coincides with the Sept. 24, 2019, National Voter Registration Day, which highlights the need for voting rights restoration. 

The N.E.W. website provides a link to an online toolkit so communities can organize such events beyond the scope of the week.

For more information about N.E.W, visit the National Expungement Week website; or follow @expungementweek's social media's channels on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as the hashtags #offtherecordus and #NEWeek19.

Feature image: More than 40 events are scheduled to take place throughout National Expungement Week, including no-cost clinics and workshops to help people to start the process of removing, sealing, or reclassifying eligible drug arrest convictions from their criminal records. (Photo by By Inked Pixels/Shutterstock)