Just over a year ago, Missouri voters approved Amendment 3 to legalize cannabis possession and sales for adults over 21. While witnessing how quickly the market found its footing, with sales beginning less than three months later on Feb. 3, 2023, perhaps more impressive is the state’s commitment to cannabis-related expungements.
Under Amendment 3, all nonviolent cases related to cannabis are required to be expunged, meaning that the case record is sealed or destroyed and involved persons are cleared of their charges. While fully completing expungements is unlikely to happen under the deadlines indicated in the new law, the state has expunged nearly 100,000 cannabis convictions from government records according to a KMBC 9 report.
The law includes a June 8 deadline for misdemeanor expungements and a Dec. 8 deadline for felony expungements, with an exception for those still incarcerated or currently under supervision by the Department of Corrections.
Dan Viets, a Missouri attorney with a focus on defending cannabis cases, wrote parts of the constitutional amendment. Speaking with KMBC 9, he nodded to these missed deadlines and highlighted the sheer amount of work involved in expunging Missouri’s cannabis-related cases.
“We have always said that as long as the courts, the circuit clerks in particular, are making a good faith effort to comply with the law, to get those cases expunged, that we’ll be satisfied,” Viets said. “They have not technically met the deadline. But on the other hand, we’re dealing with a century of marijuana prohibition in Missouri. So, there are hundreds of thousands of cases.”
The progress is evident, as reports from June 2023 show that the state had expunged about 44,000 cases at the time. And even over the summer, experts had already theorized that the deadlines imposed by the amendment were unlikely to be met.
Stephen Sokoloff, senior counsel for the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, believed that the deadlines were destined to fail from the beginning, calling the amendment “very poorly written” and drafted without Missouri law in mind.
“So it doesn’t actually track a lot of the aspects of Missouri law,” Sokoloff told St. Louis Public Radio in June. “As a result, it makes it a lot more difficult for compliance because there’s some mashing of square pegs into round holes that has to go on.”
Tackling the entirety of the state’s nonviolent cannabis-related offenses is made even harder given the way expungements are treated throughout the state. Some counties are quick to clear cannabis convictions, while judges and prosecutors in other counties have resisted and further delay expungements.
Viets spoke to this reality over the summer to Missouri NORML, where he also works as a coordinator.
“It is clear that many counties have made no serious effort to comply with the requirements of the Missouri Constitution,” he said. “It should not be necessary to seek a court order in order to force our courts to comply with the Missouri Constitution, but if that is what is required, we may pursue that option. There is no reason why these counties should be dragging their feet and failing to comply with the law as passed by the voters of our state.”
John Mueller, co-owner of 31 Greenlight Dispensary stores with 15 in Missouri alone, told KMBC 9 that revenues have tripled since making the switch from medical to recreational. That increased revenue from adult-use cannabis sales generates tax dollars for municipalities and the state, which in turn could be used for the expungement process, he pointed out.
“That’s one of the things that I think the industry is the most proud of,” Mueller said in the report, “is getting that in the Constitution.”
While 100,000 cases in a year is worth celebrating, Missouri is only just getting started. Viets told KMBC 9 that lawsuits are possible if specific communities don’t put in the work to expunge cannabis-related offenses covered by the new law. Even with the current progress, Viets added that he expects the entirety of expungements to take years to fully complete.