Marijuana Justice: Expunge Convictions For Victims Of Pot Prohibition

Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which he reintroduced last week, would rehabilitate the much-maligned plant by removing it from the federal government’s list of proscribed substances. The New Jersey senator’s bill also aims to rehabilitate the victims of that arbitrary ban, and in that respect, it departs from most of the legalization measures that have been passed by states or proposed by members of Congress.

By and large, the lingering impact of laws that criminalized peaceful activities involving cannabis has been addressed as an afterthought, if at all. Booker’s bill, which he has made a conspicuous part of his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, therefore does a real service by raising the issue of what the government owes to people who were convicted of doing things that are no longer crimes.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by four other presidential contenders, would allow people currently serving time in federal prison for violating marijuana prohibition to seek resentencing “as if” the ban had not existed when they committed their offenses. That provision could conceivably free thousands of people, depending on how judges respond to such petitions.

The Marijuana Justice Act also requires expungement of records related to “marijuana use or possession offense(s).” Such offenses account for the vast majority of marijuana arrests, but almost all of those cases are handled by state courts, so it’s not clear how many people would benefit from this provision.

Continuing to serve time for crimes that no longer exist seems clearly unjust, a point that was widely recognized after the repeal of alcohol prohibition. In 1933, for instance, Gov. Paul McNutt of Indiana issued pardons or commutations to about 400 people who had been convicted of alcohol offenses under state law. “If these men were kept in prison after the liquor law is repealed,” he said, “they would be political prisoners.”

Even for people who have completed their sentences, punishment continues. Police have arrested people for violating marijuana prohibition about 20 million times in the last three decades alone, and the resulting records impose long-lasting burdens.

Depending on the jurisdiction and the classification of the offense, people who were caught violating marijuana laws may lose the right to vote, the right to own a gun, the right to drive a car (for up to a year), the right to live in the United States (for noncitizens) and the right to participate in a wide variety of professions that require state licenses. They may find it difficult to get a job, rent an apartment, obtain student loans or travel to other countries. They may even be barred from coaching kids’ sports teams or volunteering in public schools.

The employment consequences can be explicit, as with state laws that exclude people convicted of felonies from certain lines of work, or subtle, as with private businesses that avoid hiring people who have criminal records, possibly including arrests as well as convictions, because of liability concerns. “There is no limit to how much you can discriminate against a person with a criminal record,” observes Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Such ancillary penalties seem especially unfair and irrational in the growing number of U.S. jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, which so far include 10 states, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands. California has gone furthest to address the problem: The state’s 2016 legalization initiative authorized expungement of marijuana records, and a 2018 law makes that process easier.

Other states offer various forms of relief, ranging from generous to nearly nonexistent. All of them put the onus on prohibition’s victims to seek the sealing or expungement of their criminal records, a process that can be complicated, expensive and time-consuming.

Automatic expungement is the least the government can do for millions of Americans who continue to suffer for actions that violated no one’s rights. “The end we seek is not just legalization,” Booker says. “It’s justice.”

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at


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Why Canadians — Not Americans — Rule The Cannabis Industry

President Trump routinely waves his fist at alleged unfair trade practices, including at the hands of our good neighbor Canada. But what about playing fields that are uneven because the U.S. government makes them so? Witness the cannabis industry. It’s enjoying explosive growth worldwide, but Canadians are running away with the profits because Washington has shackled their American competitors.

It’s not that Americans are unacquainted with cannabis in all its forms. Cannabis is a family of flowering plants that includes both marijuana, which produces a high, and hemp, which does not. Most states have relaxed their marijuana laws to various extents. Ten states and the District of Columbia have made pot fully legal.

Meanwhile, nonintoxicating cannabis products — cannabidiol, or CBD, oil in particular — are flying off the shelves. Green Growth Brands of Columbus, Ohio, is about to open CBD stores in family-friendly malls.

Whether CBD extracted from hemp actually delivers relief from depression, insomnia, pain and acne has not been established. These products remain largely unregulated, so consumers may not know exactly what they’re ingesting or rubbing on their backs.

But to see who’s prospering most, look north. Canada last year totally legalized marijuana. Canadians have found gold in pot and its non-toxicant relatives.

Eight cannabis companies are currently listed on Toronto’s main exchange. Tilray Inc., the largest maker of medical marijuana, based near Vancouver, just bought Manitoba Harvest, the biggest manufacturer of hemp foods, for about $315 million.

Not only do differing state laws hamper U.S. producers but so does the enduring federal ban on marijuana. As one can imagine, this complicates Americans’ ability to build up a nationwide, not to mention international, business.

For starters, it’s illegal to ship marijuana between states. Hemp-derived CBD is OK — but Tilray plans to open processing plants in the U.S. because it’s illegal to move CBD over the border with Canada. American marijuana companies can’t deduct wages or other business costs from their taxes. The Hoban Law Group, a Denver firm specializing in the cannabis industry, says this results in some U.S. competitors paying effective tax rates of 85 percent.

As a result of these restrictions, Americans don’t have a competitive infrastructure of investment banks and law firms able to handle marijuana- or hemp-related deals, not to mention supply chains. That’s why Martha Stewart has linked up with a Canadian company to develop CBD products.

Coca-Cola is said to have explored putting CBD in drinks. They would be non-psychoactive and marketed as healthful. Stories circulate that it has talked to Aurora Cannabis as a possible Canadian partner.

Other U.S. giants, such as Altria (tobacco), have shown interest in the business. Constellation Brands (beer, wine and liquor) last year added $4 billion to its investments in the Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth.

For decades, farmers in North Dakota looked over the border into Manitoba to see waving fields of hemp, a profitable crop they were not allowed to grow. The U.S. banned its farming not because hemp is any kind of drug but because it is a biological cousin of marijuana. Hemp still grows wild among the roadside weeds of the farm belt.

Hemp is used for making paper, oils and textiles. Car manufacturers put it in car seats for insulation. George Washington grew hemp. Oddly, while U.S. farmers were barred from growing the plant, American manufacturers remained free to import hemp fibers, oil and seeds from other countries.

This bit of insanity ended in December, when a farm bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump let U.S. farmers again produce hemp.

But the crazy quilt of American laws governing cannabis remains a hindrance to fully participating in a hot market. Canadians obviously don’t mind.