What happens to the millions of Americans with existing marijuana convictions once it’s legal?
This week, with a groundbreaking case in Connecticut, the U.S. may be one step closer to an answer. The ruling came in favor of 31-year-old Nicholas Menditto, who argued that the two marijuana possession convictions on his record should be erased now that less than a half-ounce of the drug has been decriminalized.
His case was initially struck down by an appellate court, which ruled that the law pertained more to “legalization” than “decriminalization.” But when Menditto brought the case to the state’s supreme court, they disagreed. With a vote of 7-0, they granted Menditto the right to have his record cleared of the charges.
In a seven-page ruling by Justice Carmen Espinosa, she parses out the difference between the words “decriminalization” and “legalization”—which may provide a roadmap for similar cases in the future. Citing definitions from Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, Espinosa rules that Connecticut’s downgrade of the possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil violation in 2011 does in fact qualify as “decriminalization.”
Connecticut law, like other states, includes a provision that expressly defends the right of an individual to file a petition for expunction of a crime if it is later decriminalized. This provision made it easier for Menditto and his Andrew Romano to defend his constitutional right to have the convictions overturned. It provided a solid foundation for the court to rule in favor of him as well.
“The legislature has determined that such violations are to be handled in the same manner as civil infractions, such as parking violations,” Espinosa writes in the ruling. “The state has failed to suggest any plausible reason why erasure should be denied in such cases.”
While multiple states in the U.S. have explored provisions to make it easier for prior marijuana convictions to be overturned in the event of decriminalization, Connecticut is one of the first to enforce the law. Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, applauds the ruling. “Most people would agree that it is unfair for an individual to face lifelong consequences for doing something that, today, would not trigger such consequences,” he says. “Penalties for marijuana possession shouldn’t follow you for life.”
A study from Quinnipiac University last May provides proof that the state’s view on pot is changing. Out of the nearly 1,700 registered voters surveyed, 90 percent said they endorse Connecticut’s approval of medical marijuana and 61 percent believe the drug is less dangerous than alcohol.
The belief that cannabis is a less dangerous substance than other, legal, ones grows even stronger nationwide. A Pew study from November found that 69 percent of Americans (nearly seven in 10) believe alcohol is more harmful to health than cannabis. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 51 percent of Americans overall favor legalizing the drug all together.
California, Maine, Massachusetts, and—most recently—New York, are among the 18 states that have passed measures decriminalizing marijuana. The law, which helps first time offenders avoid jail time or a criminal record, treats possession of small amounts of marijuana as nothing more than a traffic violation. But amending the law only protects citizens from future crimes, not ones they've previously committed.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 8.2 million people in the United States were arrested for marijuana violations between 2001 and 2010. In 2010 alone, cops arrested someone for marijuana every 37 seconds. The racial disparity in the arrests spans the nation, with blacks four times more likely to be arrested for possession of pot than whites. A report found the ACLU titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White says the arrests for even tiny amounts of marijuana can have "dire consequences" for those convicted.
A report from the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions Associated with Marijuana Offenses, expands on this notion, offering a sobering look at the far-reaching negative impact of these arrests. In 38 states, a personal possession of marijuana charge can result in a bar on adopting a child—in seven of them, for life. In 28 states, those with minor possession charges can be denied financial aid; in 46 of them, they’re banned from public housing forever.
Beyond the ripple effect of these arrests is the huge economic toll it takes on individual states. The ACLU estimates that enforcing these marijuana laws costs each state an average of $3.6 billion yearly. In 2003 alone, the Office of Nationl Drug Control Policy found that spending on marijuana enforcement in the U.S. cost the government more than $29 billion.
With an historic bill introduced to Congress last week that would effectively remove marijuana from the Schedule I substance list, the question of how to handle previous marijuana convictions is gaining urgency. Even President Obama seems ready to accept marijuana’s new status. “We may be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side,” he told VICE this week. “At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”
If Congress does reschedule pot, it will effectively open the door to infinitely more cases like Menditto’s—millions of Americans whose minor marijuana violations led to a lifetime of struggle. If his case is any indication, they may finally find a happy ending.