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Readers Favor Automatic Expungement of Marijuana Convictions Once Legalized

June 5, 2019 Crime, Drug Policy, Featured, Metro East No Comments
Most of the recreational marijuana stores we visited in Colorado in 2014 had a separate section for medical marijuana.

Marijuana became illegal largely because Henry Anslinger needed to keep his government job during the Great Depression. Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, just 3 years before the end of Prohibition on alcohol.

“From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position. A war on narcotics alone — cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914 — wasn’t enough,” author Johann Hari wrote in his book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” “They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more.” 

Consequently, Anslinger made it his mission to rid the U.S. of all drugs — including cannabis. His influence played a major role in the introduction and passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed possessing or selling pot.

Fueled by a handful of 1920s newspaper stories about crazed or violent episodes after marijuana use, Anslinger first claimed that the drug could cause psychosis and eventually insanity. In a radio address, he stated young people are “slaves to this narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, turn to violent crime and murder.” 

In particular, he latched on to the story of a young man named Victor Licata, who had hacked his family to death with an ax, supposedly while high on cannabis. It was discovered many years later, however, that Licata had a history of mental illness in his family, and there was no proof he ever used the drug.

The problem was, there was little scientific evidence that supported Anslinger’s claims. He contacted 30 scientists, according to Hari, and 29 told him cannabis was not a dangerous drug. But it was the theory of the single expert who agreed with him that he presented to the public — cannabis was an evil that should be banned — and the press ran with this sensationalized version. (CBS News)

Race was used to get public support behind a new ban:

To understand how we ended up here, it is important to go back to what was happening in the United States in the early 1900’s just after the Mexican Revolution. At this time we saw an influx of immigration from Mexico into states like Texas and Louisiana. Not surprising, these new Americans brought with them their native language, culture and customs. One of these customs was the use of cannabis as a medicine and relaxant.

Mexican immigrants referred to this plant as “marihuana”. While Americans were very familiar with “cannabis” because it was present in almost all tinctures and medicines available at the time, the word “marihuana” was a foreign term. So, when the media began to play on the fears that the public had about these new citizens by falsely spreading claims about the “disruptive Mexicans” with their dangerous native behaviors including marihuana use, the rest of the nation did not know that this “marihuana” was a plant they already had in their medicine cabinets.

The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants. In an effort to control and keep tabs on these new citizens, El Paso, TX borrowed a play from San Francisco’s playbook, which had outlawed opium decades earlier in an effort to control Chinese immigrants. The idea was to have an excuse to search, detain and deport Mexican immigrants.

That excuse became marijuana.

This method of controlling people by controlling their customs was quite successful, so much so that it became a national strategy for keeping certain populations under the watch and control of the government.

During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930’s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women. This imagery became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which effectively banned its use and sales.

While the Act was ruled unconstitutional years later, it was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970’s which established Schedules for ranking substances according to their dangerousness and potential for addiction. Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, supposedly as a place holder while then President Nixon commissioned a report to give a final recommendation. (drug policy.org)

OK, the origins were racist — but they still broke the law. They must suffer the consequences of their actions, right? No, there are people who were caught with weed, served their time, but now find it difficult to get a job, housing. We can’t continue to write these people off.

According to The Heritage Foundation, manifest in convicted felons not being able to vote, difficulty getting a job or certification, problems with housing and many more. There are over 46,000 collateral consequences that a person can face at the federal or state level after they are convicted of a crime, leading to problems nearly 70 percent of the time for these people trying to get jobs.

Justice reform advocates say that these problems increase the recidivism of former criminals and encourage a life of crime when they have no options left.

“These extra problems for a person can extraordinarily make their life more difficult in the long term,” Holcombe said. “It’s such a long process that many people don’t know about and don’t have the resources to fix on their own.”

Other advocates point to the fact that taxpayers are having to pay for the over 600,000 people being arrested every year for marijuana crimes and footing a nearly $44 billion dollar bill over more than 30 years. The Drug Policy Alliance also points out that $47 billion dollars are spent a year on the War on Drugs and that nearly 50 percent of those in jail for drug-related crimes are people of color. (Wikileaf)

It’s in society’s interests to erase their records for something now legalized. This will allow them to find work, housing, etc. They might even work in the legal weed business at some level — much better than committing a different crime because all legal options were closed to them.

Most who participated in the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll think records should automatically be expunged.

Q: Agree or disagree: Those who were convicted of marijuana possession should not have their record automatically expunged.

  • Strongly agree: 3 [11.11%]
  • Agree: 3 [11.11%]
  • Somewhat agree: 1 [3.7%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Disagree: 6 [22.22%]
  • Strongly disagree: 14 [51.85%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

Automatic expungement is better than making people file to receive expungement.  I’m very glad Illinois will be doing the right thing.

— Steve Patterson

 

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