Delaware Could Clear Past Minor Marijuana Convictions From Records

If a bi-partisan group of lawmakers committed to criminal justice reform get their way, Delaware could clear past minor marijuana convictions from records between 1977 and 2015.
Delaware Could Clear Past Minor Marijuana Convictions From Records

Since 2017, Delaware has been cautiously working toward a future with legal adult-use cannabis and a regulated market. But a new marijuana bill introduced in the General Assembly Wednesday is aiming at correcting the wrongs of the past. Delaware decriminalized cannabis possession up to an ounce in 2015. Anyone convicted prior, however, kept their criminal record. On Wednesday, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers took a step to change that. If their legislation passes, Delaware could clear past minor marijuana convictions from records for more than 1,000 people.

While Delaware Debates Legalization, Lawmakers Make Good On Decriminalization

Decriminalization is no substitute for a regulated adult-use cannabis market. While still a significant reform, it often doesn’t address prior marijuana convictions and does little to reduce illicit sales.

Furthermore, even a $100 fine can pose a significant financial hardship for low-income residents who commit an infraction.

Recognizing the need to move forward toward full legalization, Delaware lawmakers appointed a task force to study the issue. Lawmakers appointed the task force after an adult-use bill cleared committee then stalled in the Assembly early last year.

Following a yearlong battle over legalizing and regulating cannabis, the Delaware Adult Use Cannabis Task Force recently released its final report. The embattled task force only narrowly approved the release of the report, with several prominent members opposed.

Cathy Rossi, vice president of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, described the process as “a painful and difficult one.”

“And on balance, I’m not sure the substance of this report produces an adequate set of pros and cons, good, bad and in-between for public consumption,” Rossi said.

The rocky release of the task force’s report means the adult-use bill in question could see another legislative hangup. So with legalization in limbo, pro-cannabis lawmakers introduced a bill to expunge the criminal record of anyone with a minor marijuana conviction, which means that for more than 1,000 people, Delaware could clear past minor marijuana convictions from records.

New Bill Would Retroactively Expunge Over 1,000 Marijuana Convictions

Arguments in favor of decriminalization (and legalization more broadly) rightly center the criminal justice component of reforming marijuana laws. And the case is no different in Delaware.

“As a supporter of criminal justice reform, this is common sense legislation to provide equity for those previously convicted of offenses that are no longer illegal,” said Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavell (R-4th).

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (D-15th) cited the importance of the bill for the “hundreds of Delaware residents” with criminal records for possessing a small amount of marijuana prior to decriminalization.

In fact, public records indicate that upwards of 1,250 people could qualify for expungement.

Eligibility covers anyone convicted of use or possession between 1977 and 2015. But folks with other convictions don’t qualify under the proposed legislation.

Minor marijuana convictions can come with major, long-term consequences. They make it harder to find employment, secure loans and housing and can even effect child custody decisions. Clearing such convictions from someone’s record can significantly improve their life prospects.

“By passing this bill, we will help these residents clear their records of a minor infraction and move forward with their lives,” Longhurst said.

Adult-use cannabis legalization enjoys support among the majority of Delaware residents. And while the future of legal weed there is still unclear, clearing prior marijuana convictions is a major step toward progressive criminal justice reform.

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