Leon Sarvis was in college in 2008, hoping to become a gym teacher, when he said he was convicted in a New Jersey court on charges of marijuana possession and drug distribution for having a scale. Sentenced to two years of probation, he said he was fired from his job working with the disabled. And he gave up on the bachelor’s degree because he knew it wouldn’t help him get a job due to his criminal record.
“That obviously messed everything up,” Sarvis said. “So I had to change focus elsewhere. I drive trucks now—that’s a big field for a lot of people who have convictions.”
Until recently, marijuana convictions in New Jersey and New York posed barriers to jobs, education, even custody of children, particularly for Black residents, who’ve faced disproportionate police enforcement in the war on drugs. But since both states passed legislation legalizing the use of cannabis earlier this year, those convicted on marijuana charges now have an opportunity to wipe their records clean.
“No one should have records for the same activities that are now legalized, and businesses are generating profits from,” said Chris Alexander, the executive director of New York’s Office of Cannabis Management, at a Cannabis Control Board meeting last month.
In New York, which legalized cannabis in September, 198,000 records have already been expunged and another 203,000 convictions are in the process of being expunged and no longer show up in background checks, according to state data.
“When completed, the actions of these measures will have expunged the records of over 400,000 New Yorkers, a staggering reminder of the impact that cannabis prohibition had on so many,” Alexander said.
In New Jersey, which legalized the drug in February, the state Supreme Court’s automated system has expunged, dismissed, or vacated 362,000 marijuana and hashish cases, including possession of marijuana and hashish, and distribution of less than an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish. Convictions for possession of drug paraphernalia and being under the influence of a controlled substance are also being removed from records if the cases are linked to marijuana offenses. And at least 1,200 people in the state have been released from probation.
In total, more than 750,000 marijuana convictions are being expunged in both states, wiped out as if the arrests never happened. But some charges may be more complicated to untangle. In New Jersey, for example, if someone faced a marijuana offense along with a non-drug charge, such as assault, the entirety of their criminal record will still be intact, requiring judicial review before such cases can be removed.
In September, the law firm Brach Eichler held an expungement clinic at a hotel in Newark, offering free assistance to those trying to ensure their records get expunged and to help with more difficult cases.
David Jaramillo was there. He said he’d been arrested for marijuana possession more than 20 times, but also has non-marijuana charges tied to those incidents and was hoping to have as many of them removed from his record as possible.
If the expungements go through, Jaramillo said, “I just know that everything just disappears and I have a better shot at my life.
One of the legal clinic’s organizers, Brendon Robinson, said Black people—who were arrested for marijuana in 2018 at nearly three-and-a-half times the rate of white people in New Jersey, according to the ACLU—will benefit the most from the recent changes to the law.
“Our biggest thing is that we want folks to walk into any type of interview or application process where it says, ‘Are you a felon?’ or ‘Do you have a conviction?’ and be able to answer that with confidence, and know that it’s not going to hinder them from moving on with their life and being who they want to be,” said Robinson, who runs a Black cannabis lifestyle brand called 420 NJ Events.
To confirm cases in New Jersey are expunged, “certifications” can be obtained from the court where the cases were heard, or from the New Jersey Supreme Court in Trenton. So far about 6,000 certifications have been issued, a courts spokesperson said.
In New York, the expungement process is automatic for those convicted of possession of less than a pound of marijuana or distribution of less than 25 grams (just under an ounce). Residents can also apply to have their expungement records completely destroyed.
Emma Goodman, an expert on expungement with the Legal Aid Society of New York, said “there are literally thousands of ways that having a conviction on your record can hold somebody back from really moving forward with their lives.”
In addition to employment, she cited, restrictions on becoming a foster parent or working in the child-care field, or getting approved to lease an apartment.
“People were also being put into [child welfare] proceedings, merely for marijuana possession—not for using it around their kids or putting their kids in danger, just that they had at once—[the New York City Administration for Children’s Services] was coming into their home and taking their kids away,” she said. “Those are just a few examples. The list is pretty endless and pretty atrocious.”
Sarvis, now age 33, said once his record is expunged he hopes to pursue a new dream—to get into the emerging cannabis field. “Probably just the distribution lane,” he said, laughing. “Obviously.”