One of the big selling points for Proposition 207 legalizing cannabis in the state of Arizona was the possibility of expungement of pot-related convictions for nearly 200,000 residents affected by previous laws.
As the July 12 start date for qualified individuals to submit petitions to clear their records nears, clinics designed to help navigate the system have begun to pop up around the state.
To that end, Arizona NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has partnered with Copperstate Farms to host a free Expungement Resource Clinic from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 19, at the Sol Flower wellness classroom, 13650 N. 99th Ave., in Sun City.
The clinic, conducted by attorneys specializing in amicus or criminal law, will walk qualified applicants through the process of expungement. It will provide information on whether an individual qualifies to have records expunged, and how to fill out the paperwork if they do.
Anyone with an existing conviction that has been decriminalized or made legal with the passage of 207 can have their records eliminated and sealed. That includes charges or convictions for possession of up to 2.5 oz of flower or up to 12.5 grams of concentrate, possession of paraphernalia, or a charge of growing up to six plants for personal consumption.
“We provide people with information about how they can fill out petitions themselves, so these are self-help clinics,” Arizona NORML Communications Director Jon Udell said. “We're not going to file petitions for people. There's a lot of risk that goes along with doing that. We'll essentially walk them through the petition that was released by the Arizona Supreme Court, explain what the different sections require, and provide information.”
“Luckily, the petitions are not an incredibly complex legal endeavor,” Udell said. “It's fairly simple and straightforward.”
There are likely to be exceptions, though — unique cases that require a more individualized approach, according to Udell.
For instance: someone arrested for possession of an ounce of cannabis who later violated probation with a firearms possession — a prohibited possessor. Under the new law, neither of those offenses would have taken place now that pot is legal. There are also inmates serving time in prison who might not have been there had it not been for low-level marijuana charges.
So there might be many “gray areas” that require a more complex approach and will likely set new legal precedents.
“There could be some cases like these, and some of the bigger-impact legal groups will step in and try to take on some of them,” Udell said. “They will take up the appellate courts and get some good binding case law to help other people out.”
But for the overwhelming majority of people, it will be fairly uncomplicated.
While there is nothing in place to address federal offenses, anyone with charges including misdemeanors should consider getting their records cleared, as even low-level possession charges can come back to haunt such individuals.
“Misdemeanor charges can show up in people's background reports and you can have employers refuse to hire them — there's nothing stopping them from doing that,” Udell said. “Apartment complexes and landlords can also refuse to rent to you.”
The Arizona Department of Public Safety reported that as of June 2020, there are more than 192,000 residents with low-level pot charges that can be expunged, although the number of people expected to follow through with petitions is expected to be a fraction of that number, according to analysis by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in 2020. The Medical Marijuana Fund will provide $4 million to help facilitate the expungement process to be distributed by yet-unidentified nonprofits that applied to the Arizona Department of Health Services last month.
The clinic is a collaboration between Arizona NORML and Copperstate Farms and was facilitated by Copperstate's general counsel Ryan Hurley, who has been a cannabis activist in his own right for the past 10 years and briefly worked with Udell at Rose Law Group, the second law firm in the country to specialize in cannabis law, according to Hurley.
“My parents were a little concerned about what I was doing, but my mom is a big believer in medical marijuana now,” he said. “She uses it to help her sleep and has become a firm believer.”
Hurley said that Copperstate is “committed to empowering wellness for all,” and providing space for the clinics is in line with the company's vision.
He added that while Prop 207 may have had some flaws, the good it does far outweighs the bad.
“There's no such thing as a perfect law," he said. "You do the best you can under the circumstances you have and you try to make incremental progress. Keeping 20,000 people a year from being charged with felony marijuana possession is a worthy endeavor.”
The clinic is open to the public and drop-ins are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to bring as much documentation as possible relative to their previous cases or arrests in Arizona. Documentation can include arrest records, a criminal complaint, and/or sentencing order, but individuals who do not have documentation are still encouraged to attend.
Ultimately, said Arizona NORML acting executive director Mike Robinette, expungement is about righting wrongs brought about by the decades-long war on drugs and giving people who are not otherwise criminals a second chance.
“[We] are incredibly excited to see the idea of expungement to fruition,” Robinette said. “We are grateful for the opportunity to assist Arizonans in getting their previous convictions expunged and permanently ending the deleterious effects those convictions have had on their lives.”
For information on the expungement clinic or other Sol Flower wellness classes and activities, go here.