Whitmer: Process ‘underway’ to ax marijuana convictions

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As legalized, recreational marijuana takes hold in Michigan, forgiving the crimes of those convicted in the past remains a big priority for advocates.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking at the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, March 14, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Expunging marijuana convictions came up on the day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s election last November — when about 56 percent of voters approved legal pot, too. She said then that she would explore the issue upon taking office.

Since that time, new Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, has dropped charges in four cases pertaining to marijuana. And she told the Advance this week she’s on board with expungement legislation.

Whitmer spoke with the Advance on Thursday following an event in Detroit. She said she continues to work toward a policy cleaning up records of those charged with consuming or possessing a substance that is now legal.

“We’ve started the process of really assessing how do we go forward and expunge people’s record for crimes and actions that would now be considered legal under the law,” Whitmer said. “That process is now underway. It’s not something that we can do overnight, but I’m determined to make sure that we make sure that people have justice.”

In 2017, 20,657 people were arrested statewide for alleged marijuana crimes, the Michigan State Police reported. However, an MSP spokeswoman told the Advance that the department doesn’t have updated conviction rates.

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More than 117,000 people were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana crimes, resulting in about 50,000 convictions, the Detroit Free Press reported last year using statistics compiled by MSP from records supplied by county prosecutors and courts.

As 10 states have legalized recreational pot, wiping out past convictions has become more common across the country.

In California, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has wiped out more than 10,000 marijuana convictions, according to reports. He said this helps people better get loans and receive public assistance.

Erasing past cannabis crimes was one of two major priorities this year for the newly-formed West Michigan Cannabis Guild, the group’s co-founder Tami VandenBerg said.

Whitmer acted on the group’s other main priority last month when she issued an executive order creating the Marijuana Regulatory Agency. That replaced the much-maligned Bureau of Marijuana Regulation and the Michigan Marihuana Licensing Board. Several pro-pot advocates have said the existing board is overly bureaucratic and uses arbitrary reasons for issuing or denying licenses.

Tami VandenBerg

Speaking at a February meeting of the Cannabis Guild in Grand Rapids, VandenBerg said it’s critical that the group and other advocates hold Whitmer accountable on removing convictions, mostly as a matter of social justice.

“Gov. Whitmer committed to expungement and so we need to hold her to that,” VandenBerg said.

She added that criminalizing marijuana has historically affected poor people and communities of color.

“I think she’s [Whitmer] serious [about expungement]. She’s been serious about other issues that she campaigned on,” VandenBerg continued. “But it’s not a good thing to make money on something that has victimized communities for decades and caused tremendous harm. So it’s critical that we don’t forget people and we show up for them.”

Nessel, who ran on a pro-marijuana legalization platform, told the Advance last week that she supports expunging those convictions and is a work group with several state legislators.

“We’re talking about a number of different reforms as it pertains to expungement laws — not just marijuana cases, but other kinds of criminal cases, as well,” Nessel said. “I’m hoping they’ll be making progress.”

Dana Nessel at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

She added that the AG’s office has to follow the law and it’s up to the Legislature and governor to change laws to expunge marijuana crimes.

“I’m hugely supportive of some really important changes that need to be made so that we can get a lot of these marijuana convictions — that thousands and thousands of Michiganders had — off the books, off their records, [giving them a] clean slate,” Nessel said.

State Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) sponsored legislation last term — along with several Democratic co-sponsors — that never got a hearing. This year, he expects that to be different, even though Republicans still control the Legislature.

In an interview with the Advance last month, Neeley said that he “absolutely” intends to re-introduce legislation this term. He expects “more progressive movement and some more thoughtful movement toward expungement and the criminalization of things that are now legal.”

Sheldon Neeley

To that end, there’s been a broad, bipartisan push on a number of criminal justice reform initiatives this term. Both legislative chambers have already passed legislation reforming civil asset forfeiture aimed at requiring a conviction before seizing someone’s property.

Additionally, there’s a bipartisan effort to raising the age at which individuals can be charged as an adult for criminal charges.

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) has been a vocal supporter of reforming civil asset forfeiture. Asked by the Advance on the day the House passed those bills for his take on marijuana crime expungement legislation, the Northern Michigan lawmaker said he’s open to pursuing it.

“I think it’s important to have the conversation now that the people of Michigan, you know, made their voices heard loud and clear in the 2018 election,” Chatfield said. “I’m sure those conversations will continue and I want to ensure that it’s done in a safe and regulated way. And I want to see what the proposal looks like.”

Advance reporters Michael Gerstein and Ken Coleman contributed to this report.

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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