For many people—especially those in black and brown communities hit hard by the “war on drugs” of past decades—old arrests and convictions for minor amounts of pot are still haunting them whenever they fill out a job application or apply for an apartment.
“Millions and millions of individuals have been arrested and have these records following them for the rest of their lives,” says Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Illinois was the first state to insert expungement language in a statute legalizing recreational use of cannabis for adults. The Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act passed in 2019. Some other states have addressed expungement after the fact. Illinois joins more than a dozen states—some of which have legalized adult recreational use, all having legalized medical use—that have passed laws to expunge marijuana crimes.
In four states—California, Illinois, New Jersey and New York—expungement for minor pot crimes is automatic under certain criteria, with the burden falling on the state to make it happen. In other states, the person with the criminal record must proactively apply.
Several other states are considering creating expungement programs for past marijuana crimes, including Florida, Michigan and Virginia.