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Maine Holds Public Hearing on Bills to Clear Marijuana Convictions

Advocates of legalized cannabis gave powerful testimony supporting Maine’s pending decriminalization bills.

Adam Drury

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Maine Holds Public Hearing on Bills to Clear Marijuana Convictions
Matt Benoit/ Shutterstock

On May 7, Maine held a public hearing on a trio of bills that would clear criminal and civil records related to marijuana. The hearing, which took place before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, heard testimony from private citizens and those working in Maine’s developing legal industry. And while the state gets set to release the final version of its regulatory plan for that industry, Tuesday’s public hearings provided an opportunity to discuss the social justice aspects of Maine’s 2016 legalization of adult-use cannabis.

Advocates Demand Maine Clear Past Marijuana Convictions

In January, Maine lawmakers began drafting a handful of bills to expunge or seal past cannabis convictions. Those bills adopted divergent approaches toward the same goal. Richard Farnsworth’s (D-Orono) and Sen. James Dill’s (D-Portland) bills aimed to expunge all prior non-violent misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions, as several states including California, Washington and Maryland and some major municipalities like Denver and Brooklyn have done. By contrast, Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta) and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portand) proposed sealing rather than expunging past convictions.

On Tuesday, Maine’s Judiciary Committee held the first public hearing on proposals representing both approaches. And based on public comment, advocates are eager for the state to adopt any or all of the bills currently under consideration.

Mark Barnett is one such advocate. Barnett is a business-owner who lives in Auburn Maine and works with the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, a group of independent entrepreneurs and enthusiasts focused on nurturing Maine’s craft cannabis industry and supporting sensible cannabis legislation. Speaking before the Judiciary Committee, Barnett criticized how Maine lawmakers have not made criminal record expungement a priority. “It is a shame that so far in the legislative process surrounding legalization in this state, this has not been a major focus of our elected representatives.

But Barnett also praised the lawmakers working to change that, specifically Rep. Talbot-Ross, Sen. Dill and Rep. Fecteau. “I believe that this effort is more important than clarifying individuals’ and business’ ability to profit from commercial cannabis and more important that solidifying the state’s ability to generate tax revenue from such,” Barnett said, referring to the regulatory structure lawmakers are currently drafting.

Clearing Past Marijuana Convictions Essential for Equitability

Others present at Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing on clearing past marijuana convictions spoke about the need to redress the harms of criminalizing marijuana. Residents and those impacted by marijuana prohibition described criminalization as a tool of oppression, discrimination, for-profit incarceration, profiteering and racial injustice. They spoke about how failure to implement some kind of expungement or record-sealing process would salt the wounds of those still living with the lingering consequences of imprisonment, fines, social stigma, employment difficulties and lost opportunities.

“We owe it to our citizens to free them of the burdens of an unjust legal paradigm,” Barnett told lawmakers. “Let us do whatever we can to restore to those individuals the freedoms and rights they should enjoy.”

Expungement or Sealing? Maine Lawmakers Will Decide

Up for discussion at Tuesday’s hearing were three bills, LD 991, LD 1113 and LD 846. LD 846, sponsored by Rep. Talbot-Ross, would open up a process for sealing the records of marijuana-related convictions for violations that are no longer crimes. The bill would ensure that records of prior convictions are made confidential and would prohibit their dissemination for any reason. It would also require state officials to submit a progress report detailing how many records were sealed.

Taking one step further, Sen. Dill’s LD 991 would require Maine’s Department of Public Safety to fully expunge all records related to criminal convictions and civil violations for any marijuana-related activities that are now legal under the state’s 2016 adult-use law. LD 991 would give the department until July 1, 2020 to expunge all relevant records.

LD 991 would also make it possible for those with prior convictions to petition for expungement. A third bill, LD 1113, sponsored by Rep. Fecteau, would set up a board to establish and monitor that process. But it would also seal criminal history record information related to marijuana, making the information confidential.

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