By John Greaney and Sarah Morgan
Cannabis is a controlled substance under federal law. Massachusetts, however, has shifted from total prohibition to limited legalization. Despite this change, for many individuals, prior convictions for possession of marijuana may still cause major consequences. This raises the question: what can now be done about prior convictions for minor marijuana offenses that are no longer considered crimes under Massachusetts law?
Cannabis (marijuana) is made criminal as a Schedule I narcotic under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Notwithstanding the federal prohibition, Massachusetts and several other states have passed laws loosening the restrictions on small amounts of marijuana for personal use. In 2008, voters in Massachusetts approved a ballot question decriminalizing marijuana possession of up to one ounce per person. Massachusetts enacted an additional measure in 2012, allowing the purchase and use of marijuana for therapeutic uses from registered marijuana dispensaries.
Moving further away from prohibition, in 2016 Massachusetts enacted a law permitting individuals over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce on their person and up to 10 ounces in their homes. The Cannabis Control Commission, the state agency which now regulates the recreational and medical marijuana industry, is considering social consumption of marijuana at sites designated as licensed marijuana establishments, such as cannabis cafés.
Despite the significant progress made, convictions for marijuana possession under the former criminalization scheme may continue to have lasting effects on individuals. Even minor convictions for possession appear on a person’s criminal offender record information (CORI) report and may disqualify him or her from employment or housing opportunities or possibly lead to other adverse consequences.
The impact of prior criminal convictions for possession also may disproportionately affect people of color. A study conducted by the Cannabis Control Commission found that African-American and Hispanic people — in particular, men — had been disproportionately convicted for cannabis possession between 2000 and 2013 as compared to white people during the same period.
“Despite the significant progress made, convictions for marijuana possession under the former criminalization scheme may continue to have lasting effects on individuals.”
Although the 2016 legalization bill permitted individuals to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, it did nothing to erase past convictions and their lasting impacts.
In 2018, our Legislature addressed the retroactivity problem when it enacted the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Law, comprehensive legislation that allows individuals to seal or expunge their criminal records for offenses that are no longer a crime. This permits individuals who have been convicted for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis to seal or expunge their record. The law does not allow for sealing or expungement of more significant marijuana offenses.
The Criminal Justice Reform bill reflects the Commonwealth’s new views on marijuana use and a progressive intent to address the effects and disparate impacts of marijuana criminalization.
Under our revised laws, sealing and expungement are the two mechanisms available to limit, or remove, minor marijuana convictions from criminal records. Sealing records restricts who can access them and involves a relatively simple process — a petitioner must complete a petition to seal and mail it to the Office of the Commissioner of Probation in Boston. Once sealed, a person may answer, “I have no record,” when asked about criminal records concerning possession of marijuana by an employment or housing screener. However, state law-enforcement agencies and offices responsible for administering foster care, adoption, and childcare programs may still access sealed records.
Expungement permanently destroys a criminal record and allows a person to claim, without limitation, “I have no record,” when asked about their criminal history for any purpose. Expunging records requires a petitioner to file a petition for expungement in court and may require a hearing if either the petitioner or the district attorney, who must be notified of the petition, requests one. A judge hearing a petition for expungement has discretion to approve or deny it. Importantly, individuals who are not citizens, or whose immigration status may be impacted by the process, should not seal, or attempt to expunge, their records without consulting an immigration attorney.
Once a criminal conviction has been sealed or expunged, an individual is no longer obligated to report these convictions on an application for employment or housing. The Massachusetts Ban the Box Law prohibits employers from asking applicants in an initial employment application about their criminal records except in limited circumstances. The changes to the law also require employers to include specific informative language related to criminal-record disclosures in any requests provided to applicants. Applicants whose records have been expunged may answer ‘no record’ on an application for employment or housing.
Once a criminal conviction has been sealed or expunged, an individual is no longer obligated to report these convictions on an application for employment or housing.
At all stages of the hiring process, employers are absolutely prohibited from inquiring about criminal records — or anything related to criminal records — that have been sealed or expunged. In other words, once an employer learns that the applicant either has no record or that the records have been sealed or expunged, the employer cannot inquire further. In view of these changes, employers should review their hiring practices and applications and adjust them, and the interview process, accordingly.
Sealing and expunging prior convictions opens many new doors of opportunity for those impacted by the decades-long criminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts.
Anyone interested in exploring their options for addressing their qualifying Massachusetts cannabis convictions should contact the Hampden County Bar Assoc. regarding “Off the Record: A Clinic on Removing Past Marijuana Convictions from Your Record,” a free event to review individual circumstances and receive assistance on preparing the necessary documents. The clinic is co-sponsored by the Hampden County Bar Assoc., INSA, Sigma Pi Phi, and the Western New England University School of Law Center for Social Justice.
Justice John Greaney is a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson. Sarah Morgan is an associate in the litigation and cannabis practices at Bulkley Richardson.