Untold thousands of Michiganders could be in line for a second chance if voters decide to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the Nov. 6 election.
In some other states where recreational use of marijuana has been legalized, voters or lawmakers have decided to make it easier for people convicted of marijuana crimes to get their records expunged or sealed. And Michigan could be on the same path if a bill introduced last week by state Rep. Sheldon Neeley gets a hearing and is passed.
“I hope we will listen to the will of the people. If the November vote is loud and clear, we should take a good look at it and balance the playing field on the usage of marijuana in the state of Michigan,” said the Flint Democrat. “We definitely don’t want people to have a criminal record for a nonviolent crime that is now legal if it passes in November.”
His bill would only deal with misdemeanor convictions, such as use or possession of small amounts of marijuana as well as some cannabis growing. But under the legislation, judges “shall grant” requests for expungement of criminal convictions if the proposal is passed by voters and the convictions are no longer considered a crime under the legalization.
Paige, a 20-year-old from Birmingham who didn’t want her last name divulged, spent $10,000 and 21 months trying to clear her name so she could get a job in a nursing home and get accepted to nursing school. After she was pulled over for driving in Ferndale without her lights on and a police officer spotted a small bag of marijuana in her car, she was arrested, charged and convicted of improper transportation of about 1 gram of what she said was medical marijuana in her car.
She said the arrest temporarily ended her dreams of working in the health care industry because the state prohibits people with drug convictions from getting licensed to work in that field.
She had already gotten certification to be a nurse’s assistant, she said, “but I found out through a job I applied for at a nursing home. They told me the state of Michigan said I couldn’t work there. I was so embarrassed. It’s definitely not something you want attached to your name.”
If she had her application in for nursing school at the time, she would have been told the same thing.
She said went back to Oakland Circuit Court and a judge decided to give her a second chance and removed the conviction from her record.
“I was labeled as a bad person for something that was legally prescribed. I just wanted to show the world I wasn’t a bad person,” she said, adding that she has a medical marijuana card for treatment of severe migraines that began when she was 7.
But Paige, who since the expungement has landed a job in a Troy nursing home and is set to begin nursing classes in the fall, is the exception, rather than the rule.
In the past five years, 117,123 Michiganders have been arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses and 49,928 of those people have been convicted, according to statistics compiled by Michigan State Police from records supplied by county prosecutors and courts.
Nationally, according to figures compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 8.2 million people were arrested for marijuana offenses between 2001 and 2010. African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes as whites, according to the data, compiled from the FBI’s annual crime statistics.
Altogether, 3,670 people are either in prison, jail or on probation for felony marijuana convictions, according to the Michigan Department of Correction’s 2016 annual report of its inmate population. Some of those convictions are for high-level marijuana distribution charges, but others are for possession or use of marijuana. Neeley’s bill would allow some of those people to request an expungement of their conviction, but judges wouldn’t be required to grant those requests.
Not many marijuana offenders are locked up in county jails in metro Detroit. In Wayne County, 25 of the 1,725 inmates in the county jail are there on felony marijuana charges and no one is locked up on a misdemeanor pot charge, according to Undersheriff Dan Pfannes. Others may be there on marijuana crimes, but have other charges pending as well, he said. In Oakland County, seven of the 1,300 inmates are in jail on misdemeanor marijuana charges and four for felony crimes, said Undersheriff Mike McCabe.
“If you’re a nonviolent misdemeanor person, you don’t spend a significant amount of time in the Wayne County Jail,” Pfannes said.
The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which spearheaded the petition drive that got the marijuana legalization on the November ballot, considered adding a clause that would have allowed for expungement of criminal convictions. California did the same thing in 2016 when voters there passed a referendum to legalize weed by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
But there was a fear that because the proposal would deal with more than one state law that it could become vulnerable to a legal challenge.
“Expungement is a separate issue than legalization,” said Josh Hovey, spokesman for the coalition. “Our first draft included expungement, but our attorneys strongly recommended pulling it or risk the whole thing.”
Neeley hopes his bill will get a hearing before the November election, but that’s unlikely in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I’d like to see it taken up before the November election so people will have a clearer vision of what’s going to happen going forward,” he said, noting he hasn’t made up his mind on how he’ll vote on the ballot proposal.
But he will have support from some of the candidates running for statewide office. All the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, former Detroit Health Department Director Abdul El-Sayed and retired businessman Shri Thanedar, as well as attorney general candidate Dana Nessel — favor the pot legalization proposal and allowing for the expungement of low-level marijuana convictions.
All of the Republican candidates for governor — Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Saginaw Township doctor Jim Hines, as well as Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, and Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, who are running for attorney general, oppose legalizing marijuana, but they have said they would respect the will of the voters if the measure passes. Schuitmaker said it would make sense to expunge low-level convictions, but she would want to check with prosecutors first to see whether the original charge was more severe and pleaded down. None of the other GOP candidates were willing to address the expungement issue before the legalization vote is taken.
In addition to California, Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire and Oregon have taken steps to make it easier for people to get their convictions sealed or expunged. Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Nevada Republican, vetoed a bill last year that would have made clearing those convictions easier, saying that the bill didn’t differentiate enough between low-level and more serious crimes.
For Paige, the question of legalizing marijuana for recreational use is complicated. She fully supports cannabis for medical use, but isn’t sure about full legalization. For either category, however, she believes everyone deserves a second chance.
“If you have a medical card, you shouldn’t be taking away people’s dreams,” she said. “And if it’s legalized, there is no reason for a person to live with those skeletons in their closet.”