Marijuana Offenders Could Get Second Chance In Eyes Of Delaware Law

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Hundreds of Delawareans convicted of violating the state’s old marijuana laws soon could be eligible to have their criminal record wiped away.

A bill introduced Wednesday would allow those busted for using marijuana or possessing less than an ounce of the drug to have their rap sheet expunged if their conviction occurred before Dec. 18, 2015.

That’s the date a new state law took effect that decriminalized marijuana, downgrading possession of an ounce from a criminal offense to a civil violation, like a parking ticket. Possession is now punishable by a fine of up to $100 instead of three to six months in jail.

“It’s a question of equity,” said Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, the bill’s lead sponsor.

“If you were convicted of having a half ounce of marijuana three years ago, you would have to disclose that on a job application,” he said. “But someone who gets cited for the same thing tomorrow would not. That’s not fair.”

Senate Bill 197 has bi-partisan support with more than a quarter of the General Assembly signed on as co-sponsors. Among them is Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear.

“Hundreds of Delaware residents have criminal convictions for simply possessing a small amount of marijuana before we decriminalized it,” Longhurst said. “By passing this bill, we will help these residents clear their records of a minor infraction and move forward with their lives.”

But only if they were convicted of that one crime.

Someone with additional convictions — including for possession of drug paraphernalia  — would not be eligible for the do-over.

State officials estimate the legislation could affect up to 1,250 people convicted of a single marijuana crime from 1977 to 2015.

There would be one other catch, as well.

Someone seeking to have their conviction erased would need to go through the full expungement procedure, a multi-step process that cost about $125 and can take four to six months.

“We think this is a great first step toward alleviating the lasting effects of the harmful, unjust policy of prohibition,” said Zoe Patchell, director of the pro-marijuana legalization group Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network. “But we need to take the simultaneous step of replacing what is now an illegal market with a safe, legal marijuana industry.”