Massachusetts governor to pardon those convicted of misdemeanor cannabis possession

The administration estimated the pardons announced could end up benefitting hundreds of thousands of people

Gov. Maura Healey
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey holds a news conference at the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.Steve LaBlanc (AP)

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey on Wednesday said she would issue pardons for tens of thousands of people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana charges going back decades in the latest example of a state ambitiously seeking to forgive low-level drug offenders.

If approved, the pardons will apply to all adult Massachusetts state court misdemeanor convictions before March 13, 2024, for possession of marijuana or “Class D substance.” Most people will not need to take any action to have their criminal records updated, according to the Democrat and former state attorney general.

The pardons only take effect if the Governor’s Council approves Healey’s decision. Pardons would become effective immediately after the council votes, although it would take time to update criminal records.

Healey described the pardons as the most sweeping by a governor since President Joe Biden pardoned federal marijuana possession convictions and called on governors to follow suit. Healey said the pardons would apply to those arrested as far back as the 1970′s war on drugs and earlier.

A pardon essentially acts as forgiveness initiated by the governor for a conviction. It does not automatically seal or expunge criminal records. Healey said the pardons are a simple matter of justice.

“Massachusetts decriminalized possession for personal use back in 2008, legalized it in 2016, yet thousands of people are still living with a conviction on their records – a conviction that may be a barrier to jobs, getting housing, even getting an education,” she said.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell, a fellow Democrat, said she supports Healey’s effort. She said convictions for simple marijuana possession can have lifelong consequences.

“These consequences are only compounded when you consider that a disproportionate number of those who have been arrested and convicted for marijuana possession are Black and brown people,” she said.

There were close to 69,000 civil or criminal violations for marijuana possession issued in Massachusetts from 2000 through 2013, according to a report by the Cannabis Control Commission, the panel charged with administering the legal cannabis market in Massachusetts.

The administration estimated the pardons announced Wednesday could end up benefitting hundreds of thousands of people.

Daniel Vazquez said he could not be happier about the action Healey is taking, saying the pardons will help those who are in the same position he was as a teenager when he was arrested and eventually ended up in a juvenile detention facility for marijuana possession.

The 36-year-old Malden resident said the amounts of pot he possessed at the time of his arrests were less than what can be legally purchased now.

“For 20-some-odd years of my life this was the monkey on my back that I couldn’t avoid or get away from. It was always something I had to live with,” said Vazquez who eventually got his records sealed and now works in the legal marijuana industry. “That pardon will definitely open a lot of doors economically for others who are in my position or once were in my position and are still afraid to come out of the shadows.”

The pardons do not apply to other marijuana-related convictions such as possession with intent to distribute, distribution, trafficking, or operating a motor vehicle under the influence or convictions from jurisdictions outside Massachusetts, including federal court.

In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a question legalizing pot, the same year voters in California and Nevada also legalized recreational marijuana.

In the years since 2016, a bustling legal pot industry has sprouted up in Massachusetts, even as the drug remains illegal at the federal level.

In December, Biden pardoned thousands of people who had been convicted of the use and simple possession of marijuana on federal lands and in the District of Columbia.

The White House said at the time that Biden’s latest round of executive clemencies was meant to rectify racial disparities in the justice system. Biden had said his actions would help make the “promise of equal justice a reality.”

December’s action was meant to build on a similar round of pardons issued just before the 2022 midterm elections of those convicted of simple possession on federal lands.

At the time, Biden called on governors to issue similar pardons for those convicted of state marijuana offenses, which reflect the vast majority of marijuana possession cases.

As a Democratic candidate for governor in 2022, Healey indicated that she would heed Biden’s call. Other states have made similar moves.

Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee signed legislation in 2022 legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana and providing for the automatic expungement of prior marijuana possession charges.

In 2022, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana and calling for the expungement of records of past arrests and convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses, except for selling to minors or driving under the influence.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced in 2022 that thousands of residents convicted of cannabis possession would have their records cleared using an automated erasure method. Records in about 44,000 cases would be fully or partially erased.

Also in 2022, a month after Biden did the same under federal law, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced she was pardoning an estimated 45,000 people convicted of simple possession of marijuana.

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