It's Wrong to Keep People in Prison for Something That's Legal

Massachusetts made an important step forward by pushing for the retail legalization of marijuana. While we often talk of this in terms of economics or personal choice, we can’t ignore  that the war on drugs has unfairly targeted people of color, torn apart communities and contributed to mass incarceration. For example, in 2016, the arrest rate of black people for marijuana sale or cultivation was seven times higher than the rate at which whites were arrested for the same offenses.


Legalizing marijuana is one thing. Now we must reverse the stigmatization of those arrested under laws that the people of Massachusetts have said are unfair.


Massachusetts should release those incarcerated solely due to possession of marijuana or the sale of marijuana for recreational use. There is no moral reason for continuing their incarceration


The state must also expunge the records of those released and restore their voting rights. Criminal convictions live with a person long after they have left jail. Even after serving years in prison, a felony conviction still makes one ineligible to vote, run for public office, or qualify for some welfare and unemployment benefits. Employers are often worried about hiring felons and even a felon with a significant amount of skills to offer the workforce may be forced into a life of unemployment and unsteady paychecks. Imagine facing all of these problems because you were stopped on a random search by a police officer and were carrying a minute amount of marijuana on you; your life destroyed because of a minor offense. Even more insulting would be to find out that the state has legalized marijuana and you still have to live with the consequences for something the public has deemed harmless and unworthy of criminal penalties. Expunging the records of those convicted and restoring their voting rights is only fair.


If we do this, we are following the example of other progressive states.  In California, a provision in their legalization law allowed for the expungement of any conviction, whether serious felony or misdemeanor, that was solely related to marijuana charges.   According to the National Conference of State Legislatures at least nine other states have passed laws to expunge marijuana records including Maryland, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. Why shouldn’t Massachusetts join them as well? As a society we owe it to these people to help get them back on their feet, and the burden for navigating the legal minefield of expungement should be on the shoulders of the government not individuals.


We have taken an important step forward as a state, but we shouldn’t forget about the damage that these laws have already caused. This summer, as retail stores open and cafes begin to serve marijuana in a variety of forms--we cannot forget the amount of lives that have been terribly affected by old marijuana laws. A full release of those incarcerated plus expungement of their records and restoration of voting rights is not only fair, but will lead to a more economically productive state and a more equitable one.

Alex BauschComment